Here we look at what you should do if you are unhappy with decisions or services from the Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT).

Who can complain?

Anyone who has been affected by the actions of their HSCT can make a complaint. This can be the person with disabilities, or a family member or carer.

How to complain

The procedure for complaints in relation to Health and Social Care is set out in the Health and Social Care Directions (Northern Ireland) 2009 and the Directions to the Health and Social Care Board on Procedures for FPS Complaints (Northern Ireland) 2009 (the Directions). The legislation is complemented by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) guidance Complaints in Health and Social Care – Standards and Guidelines for Resolution and Learning (The guidance) which sets out minimum standards.

Under the legislation each HSCT is permitted to make its own complaints arrangements. You should ask your HSCT to send you a copy of the complaints procedure. They should make this available to you when you ask for it. Complaints can be made verbally, in writing or by email. A template letter for making a complaint is available here on our website.

Time limits

You should make your complaint as soon as possible - usually six months from when the matter occurred, or from when you became aware of the problem, and normally no longer than 12 months from when the matter occurred. Complaints about incidents that occurred more than 12 months ago will only be accepted if there is good reason for the delay.

The complaints procedure

The complaints procedure covers concerns about:

  • the assessment process or services
  • refusal of services
  • the financial assessment process and level of charges for care provision
  • the quality and standard of care provision
  • poor communication
  • lack of information or incorrect information

The Northern Ireland complaints process follows a single tier local resolution process. A complaint should be acknowledged within 2-3 working days of receipt. If the complaint is about a hospital or community service, a full response should be received within 20 working days. You should be informed if the Trust requires more time to investigate the complaint.

Once the complaint investigation has been completed, a report will be written up about the way the complaint has been dealt with and the conclusions the investigation has reached. If any action is to be taken to resolve the issue, this will be confirmed. If you wish to seek clarification in response to the complaint or remain dis-satisfied you should contact the HSCT within three months of their decision.

You will also be told about your right to contact the Ombudsman if you are not happy with the response you receive. The Ombudsman investigates the way the HSCT dealt with the complaint and focuses on any issue of maladministration.

If you are happy with the HSCT but have a problem with the service you are receiving, you should complain to the person who manages that service as well as the HSCT. If you live in residential accommodation with support and are not happy, you should speak to the manager of the home you are living in. The organisation that runs the home will have a complaints procedure which you are entitled to see. If you feel your complaint is not being listened to, then whoever is responsible for managing your care package from within the HSCT should also be informed.

Advocacy and Support – The Patient and Client Council

If you would like to speak to someone for independent advice or help with making a complaint, you can contact the Patient and Client Council. All advice, information and assistance with complaints is free and confidential.

If you want to take things further

If you have been through local resolution and you are still not happy with the way things have been handled you may be able to complain to the Ombudsman.

If you suspect that the HSCT has acted outside the law, you may also be able to apply for leave to go to Judicial Review. This is a legal process which reviews the decisions made by public bodies to ensure that they are within the law.

It is recommended you get legal advice before considering the options below.

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints - Ombudsman

You will not normally be able to complain to the Ombudsman until you have gone through the local resolution complaints procedure.  

A complaint to the Ombudsman must usually be made within 12 months of the problem originally arising.

The Ombudsman can only deal with cases where ‘maladministration’ has occurred. Maladministration concerns the poor administration or the wrong application of rules. Maladministration could include where:

  • the HSCT has done something wrong or has failed to do something that they should have done
  • the HSCT’s decision was delayed or biased
  • the HSCT did not follow their own procedures correctly.

As well as maladministration, in order for the Ombudsman to investigate you must show you have incurred “substantive personal injustice”. This could include where you have been subjected to continued suffering by being place on a waiting list for an unreasonable length of time, or where you have suffer distress by the failure of the Trust to respond to your complaint.

The Ombudsman will be given access to all the relevant documents held by the Trust. Following the investigation the Ombudsman will prepare a report that will be sent to you and the Trust. The report will outline its findings and recommendations.

Judicial review 

If you suspect that the HSCT has acted outside the law, you may also be able to apply for leave to go to Judicial Review. This is a legal process, where the court reviews the decisions made by public bodies to ensure that they are within the law. 

The court will usually expect you to have gone through the complaints procedure and the Ombudsman.  

This is a complex area and you should seek specialist legal advice before taking this step.

European Court of Human Rights

The Human Rights Act 1998 makes it unlawful for public bodies to act in such a way as to violate a person’s ‘convention rights’.  Convention rights include:
  • Article 2: the right to life
  • Article 6: the right to a fair hearing and 
  • Article 8: the right to respect for private life, family and home life.

The person making the complaint must allege a violation of at least one of the principal Articles of the Convention of Human Rights 1950.

A complaint can only be made to this court  once you have gone through all other complaint procedures, and the complaint must be made within 6 months of the final decision made by the last and highest domestic court or authority.

If you think a local authority decision has breached your rights under the Human Rights Act, you should seek specialist legal advice.

More from the National Autistic Society

Community care for adults

Where to go for further advice

Citizens Advice Northern Ireland

The Patient and Client Council

Northern Ireland Ombudsman

Office of Care and Protection

Voice of Young People in Care

The Law Society of Northern Ireland (includes online list of solicitors) 

Carers Northern Ireland