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Unreasonable persistent complainants

Persistent complainant policy

Norwich City Council’s policy on dealing with abusive, persistent, or vexatious complaints.

1. Introduction

1.1 This policy is about the management of abusive, persistent and/or vexatious complainants. It sets out how Norwich City Council (‘the Council’) will deal with complainants 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 areas of the Council.

1.2 Before implementing the provisions in this policy, officers must consider whether the council’s procedures have been followed correctly, make sure full and reasonable responses have already been given and decide if the complainant is now unreasonable.

1.3 The council has a duty to provide a safe working environment and system of work for its officers. Regardless of this policy, abusive, offensive, or threatening conduct may be referred to the police to take action as appropriate in addition to any action the council may take.

2. How is unreasonable complaint behaviour defined

2.1 It should be noted that raising a complaint about a Council service does not in itself constitute unreasonably persistent behaviour and neither do complainants who escalate through all stages of the relevant complaints procedure or those who express criticism about the complaints process itself.

2.2 The Council has adopted the Local Government and 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.” 

2.3 Examples of unreasonable 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 from the council.
  • Refusing to cooperate with the complaints investigation process while still wishing for their complaint to be resolved.
  • Refusing to accept that certain issues are not within the scope of the Council’s jurisdiction or within the scope of the complaints policy and procedure.
  • Insisting on the complaint being dealt with in ways which are incompatible with the complaints procedure or with good practice.
  • Making unjustified complaints about staff who are trying to deal with the issues and seeking to have them dismissed or displaced.
  • Changing the basis of the complaint without reasonable justification whilst the complaint is under investigation.
  • Make an unreasonable number of contacts with the council in relation to a specific complaint or complaints.
  • Adopting a 'scatter gun' approach: pursuing parallel complaints on the same issue with various members of staff and/or organisations.
  • Electronically record meetings and conversations without the prior knowledge and consent of the other person involved.
  • 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.
  • Submitting repeat complaints with minor additions/variations, which the complainant insists make these 'new' complaints.
  • Refusing to accept the decision; repeatedly contacting the member of staff regarding the same matter, arguing points with no new evidence.
  • Refusing to accept documented evidence as factual.
  • Repeatedly attend council offices, harass, verbally abuse, or otherwise seek to intimidate staff dealing with their complaint, by use of foul, inappropriate offensive or discriminatory language.
  • Electronically record meetings and conversations without the prior knowledge and consent of the other person involved.
  • 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.
  • Behave in an abusive, offensive, or threatening manner towards council staff or their families

3. Managing unreasonable complainant behaviour

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

3.2 Type of actions the council may take:

  • 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 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
  • Requiring any face-to-face contacts to take place in the presence of a witness and in a suitable location
  • Letting the complainant know that the council will not reply or acknowledge any further contact with them on the specific topic of that complaint or at all
  • Restrict access to one or more council premises
  • Requesting contact to be in a particular format (e.g., letters only)

3.3 These actions are not exhaustive and other factors individual to the case or service may be relevant in deciding on an appropriate course of action.

In deciding on the appropriate action, care must be taken to:

  • not interfere with the complainant’s statutory rights.
  • make sure that the council takes appropriate action in response to a matter included in a complaint where necessary.
  • he complainant’s individual circumstances have been taken into account including such issues as age, disability, gender, race and religion or belief.
  • Consideration about whether it is appropriate to convene a meeting with the complainant and a senior officer in order to seek a mutually agreeable resolution
  • If it is known or suspected that the complainant has any special needs, then consider offering an independent advocate who may assist the complainant with their communication with the Council

3.4  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.

4. Imposing restrictions

4.1 In the first instance the service area manager will notify the customer experience lead of the unreasonable behaviour. A meeting will take place to review the complainant's behaviour and if deemed unreasonable they will be informed in writing to explain why this behaviour is causing concern and asked to change this behaviour. They will be advised what actions the Council may take if the behaviour does not change.

4.2 If the complainant continues to behave in a way which is deemed unacceptable this policy may be invoked. The behaviour will be reviewed and the decision to classify a complainant as unreasonably persistent or as behaving unreasonably will be made by the manager. Where there is a dispute about the classification of a complainant, the matter shall be escalated to the head of customers, IT and digital for a final decision.

4.3 When the decision has been taken to apply this policy to a complainant, the head of customers, IT and digital 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
  • the right of the complainant to contact the Local Government Ombudsman about the fact that they have been treated as a persistent/vexatious complainant

4.4 If the complainant continues to behave in a way which is deemed unacceptable then the council may decide to refuse all contact with the complainant and cease any investigation into his or her complaint.

4.5 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 or taking legal action. In such cases, we may not give the complainant prior warning of that action.

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

4.7 If a complainant considers that the council is acting improperly or unfairly when making restrictions, they have the option of complaining to the Local Government Ombudsman.

5. Review

5.1 The restrictions which are imposed upon the complainant will be reviewed after 12 months and at the end of every subsequent 12 months within the period during which the policy is to apply.

5.2 Where there is a dispute about the review of a complainant’s classification, the decision will be made by the head of customers, IT and digital.

5.3 Complainants will be notified that a review has taken place and of its outcome. The head of customers, IT and digital will contact the complainant in writing (and/or as appropriate) to explain:

If the decision has been taken to extend the restriction period:

  • why this decision has been taken
  • what action the Council will be taking
  • the duration of that action

If the complainant’s behaviour is no longer deemed to be unreasonable:

  • confirm that the restrictions have now been lifted

Version 4 2022

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