Dealing with complaints is an inevitable part of any organisation’s work. But for organisations exercising a public function (such as professional membership organisations, regulators, and educational institutions) the handling of complaints is a crucial means by which they uphold professional and/or ethical standards and seek to protect the public.

Complaints handling in these contexts is often very high stakes, with the ultimate sanction against those being complained about often being removal of professional membership or striking off from a professional register. This can lead to the taking away of an individual’s livelihood and can therefore have life-changing ramifications for the individuals concerned. The potential, serious impacts on individuals needs to be balanced against the public interest in making sure that professional and/or ethical standards are adhered to and public confidence in the profession, organisation or individuals concerned is maintained.

It is important that organisations get their complaints and disciplinary procedures right. An organisation’s procedures should enable it to effectively carry out its public functions, taking proportionate action where necessary, but avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy. Procedures should be accessible for complainants, so that they are not put off from bringing their concerns to light, whilst being sensitive to the subject of the complaint, for whom involvement in a complaints/disciplinary procedure can be an extremely stressful experience. A good complaints/disciplinary procedure is one that is fair, proportionate and transparent.

Some top tips for an effective complaints procedure:

  • Link your procedure to a Code of Conduct or set of professional/ethical standards so that it is clear what the expectations are, and what the potential outcomes could be if these expectations are not met
  • Your procedure should be written in clear, accessible language
  • Make your procedure as straightforward as possible – overly-complicated processes can be time-consuming and expensive to run and put people off raising their concerns
  • Be proportionate – your procedure should balance the interests of the subject of the complaint with those of the complainant, and the wider public interest
  • Comply with public law principles of natural justice and fairness, for example:
    • Be, and be seen to be, unbiased and impartial, unaffected by conflicts of interests.
    • Provide a right for written representations to be made.
    • Offer a right of appeal or a review of the outcome/decision.

Our Public and Regulatory Team has a wealth of experience in advising a wide variety of organisations on their complaints and disciplinary processes. If you need help with reviewing your existing procedures, or would like advice on how to set up new procedures from scratch, then we can help.