Persistent complainants policy

Dealing with unreasonably persistent complaints and unreasonable behaviour from customers

  1. Reading Borough Council values all kinds of customer feedback and expressions of dissatisfaction are treated seriously and recognised as a way for the Council to identify and implement service improvements. The Council is also accountable for the proper use of public money and must ensure that that money is spent wisely and achieves value for complainants and the wider public. This policy applies to Reading Borough Council, Brighter Futures for Children and contractors.
  2. This policy is about the management of abusive, persistent and/or vexatious complainants and customers. It sets out how Reading Brough Council (‘the Council’) will deal with complainants and customers that fall within the scope of this definition. Those identified will be treated consistently, honestly and proportionately while ensuring that other service users, officers and the Council as a whole suffer no detriment. This policy applies to all service areas as stated above and cases will be shared as appropriate with wider teams such as the Customer Services.
  3. It is considered that all complainants have the right to have their concerns examined in line with the relevant complaints procedure. In most cases, dealing with complaints will be a straightforward process; however in a minority of cases, the complainant may act in a manner that is deemed unacceptable.
  4. They may act in a way that is considered abusive, unreasonably persistent or vexatious and by doing so it may hinder the Council’s ability to investigate their complaint or the complaints of others. This behaviour may occur at any time before, during or after a complaint has been investigated.
  5. The time spent on dealing with all complaints should be proportionate to the nature of the complaint and consistent with the outcome that is being sought being realistic and achievable.
  6. The Council has adopted the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s definition and the identified characteristics for unreasonable or unreasonably persistent complainants “For us, unreasonable and unreasonably persistent complainants are those complainants who, because of the nature or frequency of their contacts with an organisation, hinder the organisation’s consideration of their, or other people’s, complaints”.
  7. The Council has adopted the guidance at Annex 5 of Getting the Best from Complaints, this is a guidance on unacceptable behaviour which provides local authorities who has implemented the Children Act 1989 and 2004 complaints procedure for children and young people. This complaints procedure can be accessed by adults acting on behalf of children and young people.
  8. The decision to restrict access to our offices will be taken by Service Manager responsible for the Customer Relations Team in consultation with senior management and will normally follow a prior warning to the customer or complainant. Any restrictions imposed will be appropriate and proportionate. The options we are most likely to consider are:
    • requesting contact in a particular form (for example, letters only);
    • requiring contact to take place with a named officer or via team email address
    • requiring contact to take place via a named email address/inbox
    • restricting telephone calls to specified days and times; and/or
    • asking the complainant/customer to enter into an agreement about their future contacts with us
    • blocking of emails or diverting of emails away from staff to team mailboxes
    • blocking of telephone numbers where nuisance is caused to staff or services are disrupted and where abusive or derogatory langue is used when speaking to members of staff

8.1 Examples of unreasonably persistent behaviour:

(this list is not exhaustive, nor does one single characteristic on its own imply that the person will be considered as being in this category).

  • Refusing to specify the grounds of a complaint, despite offers of help
  • Refusing to cooperate with the complaints investigation process
  • Refusing to accept that certain issues are not within the scope of the Council’s jurisdiction or within the scope of a complaints procedure
  • Insisting on the complaint being dealt with in ways which are incompatible with the adopted complaints procedure or with good practice
  • Making unjustified complaints about staff who are trying to deal with the issues, and seeking to have them replaced
  • Changing the basis of the complaint as the investigation proceeds
  • Denying or changing statements he or she made at an earlier stage
  • Introducing trivial or irrelevant new information at a later stage
  • Raising many detailed but unimportant questions, and insisting they are all answered.
  • Submitting falsified documents from themselves or others
  • Adopting a ‘scatter gun’ approach: pursuing parallel complaints or enquiries on the same issue with various members of staff and/or organisations
  • Making excessive demands on the time and resources of staff with lengthy phone calls, emails to numerous council staff, or detailed letters every few days, and expecting immediate responses or demanding response by a specific date which is deemed to be unreasonable
  • Submitting repeat complaints with minor additions/variations, which the complainant insists make these ‘new’ complaints
  • Refusing to accept the decision; repeatedly arguing points with no new evidence
  • Submitting correspondence that impacts the Council from carrying out business as usual tasks

8.2 Examples of abusive and/or vexatious complainants

The Council will take steps to protect its staff from members of the public who are behaving in a way which is considered abusive and/or vexatious. This may include physical or verbal abuse and could include the following (however this list is not exhaustive):

  • Speaking to the member of staff in a derogatory manner which causes offence
  • Swearing, either verbally or in writing despite being asked to refrain from using such language
  • Using threatening language towards Council staff which provokes fear
  • Repeatedly contacting a member of staff regarding the same matter which has already been addressed
  • Phishing for information about staff members causing offence and distress
  • Using social media sites and/or referring to staff members which causes offence

9.        Managing unreasonable complainant behaviour

9.1 This policy may be invoked if the Council considers that a complainant/customer has behaved in a manner which is deemed unreasonable (see above). The Council may take any actions against a complainant/customer that the Council considers to be reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances.

9.2 Types of actions the Council may take:

  • Where the complainant/customer tries to reopen an issue that has already been considered through one of the Council’s complaints procedures, they will be informed in writing that the procedure has been exhausted and that the matter is now closed
  • Where a decision on the complaint has been made, the complainant should be informed that future correspondence will be read and placed on file, but not acknowledged, unless it contains important new information
  • Limiting the complainant to one type of contact (e.g. telephone, letter (postal), email, etc.)
  • Placing limits on the number and duration of contacts with staff per week or month
  • Requiring contact to take place with a named member of staff or team and informing the complainant that if they do not keep to these arrangements, any further correspondence that does not highlight any significantly new matters will not necessarily be acknowledged and responded to, but will be kept on file
  • Assigning one officer to read the complainant’s correspondence, in order to ensure appropriate action is taken
  • Offering a restricted time slot for necessary calls to specified dates and times
  • Requiring any face-to-face contacts to take place in the presence of a witness and in a suitable location prioritising the safety and wellbeing of staff.

10. Matters to take into account before taking action

10.1 Before taking a decision to invoke this policy consideration should be given to whether any further action is necessary, such as:

  • Consideration about whether it is appropriate to convene a meeting with the complainant/customer and a senior officer in order to seek a mutually agreeable resolution
  • If it is known or suspected that the complainant/customer has any special needs then consider referring the customer to an independent advocate (within the voluntary sector) who may assist the complainant with their communication with the Council. The Council will not commit to funding this advocacy unless the customer meets the requirement for advocacy under the Children Act 1989 and 2004 or has been the subject to a needs assessment under the Care Act 2014

Where more than one department is being contacted by the complainant, agree a cross departmental approach: and designate one officer or team email address to deal with the complainant/customer.

10.2 Where a customer whose case is closed persists in communicating with us about it, we may decide to terminate contact with that customer about the matter. In such cases, we will read all correspondence from that customer, but unless there is fresh evidence which affects our decision on the inquiry or complaint, we will simply acknowledge it or place it on the file with no acknowledgement.

10.3 New complaints from people who have come under this policy will be treated on their merits.

11.  Imposing restrictions

11.1 .In the first instance the Customer Relations Team in consultation with the relevant Executive or Assistant Director will communicate to the complainant either by phone or in writing to explain why this behaviour is causing concern, and ask them to change this behaviour. Where reasonable adjustments are required under the Equality Act 2010, this may be carried out in a one-off face to face (or virtual meeting). This may take place at the customer’s request or at the discretion of the Council. The Customer Relations Team or the Service the customers case is open to will explain what actions the Council may take if the behaviour does not change.

11.2 Where a face to face (virtual) meeting takes place, this meeting will be minuted and a copy of the minutes will be shared with the complainant/customer.

11.3 If the complainant continues with the unreasonable behaviour the Customer Relations Team will consult with the Assistant Director of Legal and Democratic Services about whether it is necessary to take appropriate action by invoking this policy.

11.4 When the decision has been taken to apply this policy to a complainant/customer, the Customer Relations Team will contact the complainant in writing (and/or as appropriate) to explain:

  • why this decision has been taken
  • what action the Council will be taking
  • the duration of that action
  • the review process of this policy by a more senior manager and
  • the right of the complainant to contact the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman about the fact that they have been treated as a persistent/vexatious complainant.

11.4 Any restriction that is imposed on the complainant/customer’s contact with the Council will be appropriate and proportionate and they will be advised of the period of time the restriction will be in place for. In most cases restrictions will apply for between three and six months but in exceptional cases may be extended. In such cases the restrictions would be reviewed usually six monthly, or on a quarterly basis.

11.5 If the complainant/customer continues to behave in a way which is deemed unacceptable then the Customer Relations Team, in consultation with the Assistant Director of Legal and Democratic Services, may decide to refuse all contact with the complainant and cease any investigation into his or her case.

11.6 Where the behaviour is so extreme or it threatens the immediate safety and welfare of staff, the Council will consider other options, for example reporting the matter to the Police, taking legal action or ceasing contact. In such cases, the Council may not give the complainant prior warning of that action.

11.7 Where the customer is entitled to a statutory service, communication will be restricted to matters of service needs only.

12. New complaints from those who have been treated as being abusive, vexatious and/or unreasonably persistent complainants.

12.1. Any new complaints received from complainants who have come under this policy will be treated on their merits. The Council does not support a blanket ban on genuine complaints simply because restrictions may be imposed upon that complainant.

13. Review

13.1 The Customer Relations Team will review any restrictions which are imposed upon the complainant after three months and at the end of every subsequent three months within the period during which the policy is to apply.

13.2 Should the decision be taken to extend the period of restriction, the complainant will be advised in writing how the Council plans to go about this and that the decision to restrict contact will be put in place for a further specified period (e.g. six months). The outcome of any subsequent review will be communicated to the complainant, outlining if the restrictions will continue to apply and if so why.

13.3 If at the end of the restricted period it is considered that the complainant’s behaviour is no longer deemed to be unreasonable, the Council will confirm this in writing advising that the restrictions have now been lifted.

14. Terminating contact with a Complainant

14.1 There may be occasions where the relationship between the Council and unreasonably persistent or vexatious complainants/customer breaks down completely. This may even be the case while complaints are under investigation and there is little prospect of achieving a satisfactory outcome. In such circumstances, there may be little purpose in following all the stages of the complaints procedure. Where a complainant continues to behave in a way which is unacceptable, the local authority may decide to terminate contact with the complainant and discontinue any investigation into the complaint.

15. Record Keeping

15.1 The Customer Relations Team will keep a record of all complainants/customers who have been treated as being unreasonably persistent, abusive and/or vexatious in accordance with this policy. This will include details of the warning and why the policy was invoked, what restrictions were imposed and for what period of time.

15.2 Any complainant or customer deemed to be a threat (verbal or physical abuse) to the wellbeing of staff will be referred to the Council’s Health & Safety Team who will add the customer’s details to the inCheck data base. inCheck is a database which will hold information on people and/or addresses where actual or threats of violence have taken place. This system will allow staff across the Council to check if the person or address that they are meeting/visiting is on the Register and to get information/advice on the risks involved when meeting/visiting.

15.3 Operational managers are required to liaise with the Health & Safety Team to discuss the above paragraph.

15.4 Anonymised information will be reported to the Council’s Corporate Management Team annually.

Approved by Council 26 January 2010

Revised December 2022

Last updated on 24/04/2023