What you should do if you are unhappy with decisions or services from social services and/or the NHS.

Who can complain?

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

How to complain

The Social Work (Representations Procedure) (Scotland) Directions sets out how to make a complaint.

Each service provider must have appropriate complaints procedures, investigate complaints within a reasonable timescale and make service users aware of their rights to take their unresolved complaints to the Care Inspectorate. 

You should ask your service provider to send you a copy of the complaints procedure. They should make this available to you when you ask for it.

You can make a complaint verbally, in writing or in an email. If you write a letter of complaint, send a copy to the complaints officer. The complaints officer logs all complaints on a database. The complaints officer also guides patients and staff through the complaints procedure and promotes changes in the service where they are thought to be needed.

A model template letter for making a complaint is available on our website.

Social Services complaints

The social work 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 Scottish complaints procedure follows a three stage process.

Stage 1

At the informal stage you need to let someone at your social work department know that there is something wrong. You can make either a verbal or a written complaint to them, although it is advisable to put the complaint in writing or keep a note of your complaint if you use the telephone. An informal complaint can be made to any officer at the social work department and they should try and sort out the problem. 

Stage 2

If the problem is not resolved at an informal level, you can make a formal complaint. At the formal complaint stage, you will need to speak to specially designated staff, usually someone who is higher up within your local authority, who will then arrange for your complaint to be investigated. You should have your complaint acknowledged within five working days of it being received, and you should expect a response within 28 working days. The department should inform you if they need more time to investigate your complaint.

Stage 3

If you are still not satisfied or the problem is still not resolved, you can ask an independent Complaints Review Committee (CRC) to consider it. The CRC will make recommendations on how the complaint should be resolved within 56 days of it being received. The local authority should inform you of any actions they intend to take in line with the CRC recommendations. 

If you are not happy with the decision of the CRC you can raise your complaint with the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO). The SPSO investigates the way the local authority has dealt with the complaint and focuses on any issues of maladministration.

You can skip the informal stage if you feel your complaint is serious and needs to be investigated urgently. In particular, if you feel you need help urgently and that it is not being offered.

What happens when a decision is made about my 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. You will also be told about your right to contact the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman if you are not happy with the response you receive.

If you are happy with the local authority but have a problem with the service you are receiving, you should complain to the person who manages that service as well as the local authority. 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 local authority should also be informed.

If you are unhappy with the outcome of the complaint from the service provider, you can ask the Care Inspectorate to carry out an investigation.

NHS complaints procedure

You can make a complaint about NHS services or treatment you receive. These could be services provided by a GP practice, local pharmacy, dentist, or optician or NHS services commissioned and provided by a private health care provider.

You may want to complain if you are not happy with the way staff treated you, the care and treatment you have received, the time it took to receive treatment or if you have been refused treatment.

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. Some complaints may be accepted after six months, but only if there is a reasonable explanation for the delay.

You cannot use the NHS complaints system to get any financial compensation. If you are seeking financial compensation you will need to get independent legal advice.

You should always try to resolve your complaint through your local service’s own complaints procedure in the first instance. Health Rights Information Scotland has a directory of who to contact when making a complaint.

You should receive acknowledgement of your letter within three working days and a full response to your letter within 20 working days, or as soon as reasonably practicable. 

If you would like to speak to someone for independent advice or help with making a complaint you can contact the Patient Advice and Support Service which should be available in your area through your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

If you want someone to help you express your views you can ask for an advocate. An advocate is independent of the NHS and can help make sure your views are heard. Your local NHS board will be able to tell you about advocacy services in your area.

If you want to take things further

If you have been through your local authority or the local NHS complaints procedure and you are still not happy with the way things have been handled, you may be able to complain to The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).

If you suspect that the local authority have 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. You must seek legal advice before taking this step. Advice on finding legal advice is given at the end.

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

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO)

You will not normally be able to complain to the Ombudsman until you have gone through the local authority or NHS 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 manner in which decisions are reached and the manner in which they are or are not implemented. Maladministration could include where:

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


The Ombudsman will be given access to all the relevant documents held by social services. Following the investigation the Ombudsman will prepare a report that will be sent to you and social services and/or the NHS. The report will outline its findings and recommendations. If your complaint is upheld, the Ombudsman may recommend the local authority or NHS pays you compensation.

The contact details for the Ombudsman are given at the end of this page.

Judicial review

If you suspect that the local authority or NHS have 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 of Session reviews the decisions made by public bodies to ensure that they are within the law.

The Court of Session 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.

Where to go for further advice

Citizens Advice Scotland
Spectrum House
2 Powderhall Road
Edinburgh EH7 4GB
Tel: 0131 550 1000
Fax: 0131 550 1001
Email: info@cas.org.uk
Website: www.cas.org.uk

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman
4 Melville Street
Edinburgh EH3 7NS
Tel: 0800 377 7330
Email: ask@spso.org.uk
Website: www.spso.org.uk

Scottish Association of Law Centres
C/o Govan Law Centre
47 Burleigh Street
Glasgow G15 8TE
Tel: 0141 440 2503
Email: m@govanlc.com
Website: www.govanlc.com

Law Society of Scotland
LP1 - Edinburgh
26 Drumsheugh Gardens
Edinburgh EH3 7YR
Tel: 0131 226 7411
Fax: 0131 225 2934
Email: lawscot@lawscot.org.uk
Website: www.lawscot.org.uk (includes online list of solicitors)

Patient Advice and Support Service: www.patientadvicescotland.org.uk

Care Inspectorate
Tel: 0845 603 0890

Health Rights Information Scotland
Health Information Services
NHS 24
Golden Jubilee National Hospital
Beardmore Street
Clydebank G81 4HX
By email: nhs.inform@nhs24.scot.nhs.uk
If your enquiry is about health rights call the NHS inform Helpline on 0800 22 44 88.

Further information and contacts

More from the NAS:


Useful contacts

Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance 
Tel: 0131 260 5380
Email: enquiry@siaa.org.uk
Website: www.siaa.org.uk

The Independent Living Fund (ILF)
The Independent Living Fund pays extra funds to people with severe disabilities whose needs may not be met fully by the social work assessment. For further information you should ask your social worker or contact the following organisations.
Email: funds@ilf.org.uk
Website: www.ilf.org.uk 

Carers Scotland
Email: advice@carersuk.org 
Website: www.carersuk.org/Scotland
Advice Line: 0808 808 7777

Citizens Advice Scotland 
Email: info@cas.org.uk
Website: www.cas.org.uk 

Scottish Association of Law Centres
C/o Govan Law Centre
47 Purlieu Street
Tel: 0141 440 2503
Email: m@govanlc.com
Website: www.govanlc.com

Law Society of Scotland
LP1 - Edinburgh 
26 Drumsheugh Gardens 
EH3 7YR 
Tel: 0131 226 7411 
Fax: 0131 225 2934 
Email: lawscot@lawscot.org.uk
Website: www.lawscot.org.uk(includes online list of solicitors)

Office of Public Guardian (Scotland)