To complain or not to complain Part 1

Good practice guidance relating to complaints made against Children Services. 

In a recent training session, I was requested to clarify what happens if someone wants to complain against a decision made by children social care services. So this legal blog is about the complaints process.

This legal blog is intended to:

1. Inform;

2. to understand the complaints process and;

3. to provide guidance on ways to resolve matters to avoid the need for the complaints escalating to a formal investigation undertaken by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (the Ombudsman).

There will be times when a child, parent or carer is not happy with the service provided or arranged for by children’s social care services Unfortunately, at times this dissatisfaction may result in matters progressing to a complaint; 

The complaint can relate to:

  • concern about the quality or appropriateness of a service; 
  • delay in decision making or provision of services; 
  • delivery or non-delivery of services, including complaints procedures; 
  • quantity, frequency, change or cost of a service; 
  • attitude or behaviour of staff; 
  • application of eligibility and assessment criteria; 
  • the impact on a child or young person of the application of a local authority policy; 
  • assessment, care management and review. 

Who can make the complaint

  • Any child or young person who is being looked after by the local authority or is considered to be a child in need, child’s parents or anyone who holds parental responsibility;
  • Children who have left care;
  • Special Guardian caring for a child subject to a Special Guardianship Order who has applied for special guardian support services;
  • Any local authority foster carer (these can include foster carers caring for children placed through independent fostering agencies);
  • Such other person as the local authority considers has sufficient interest in the child or young person’s welfare to warrant his/her representations being considered by them, this could include:
    • Any child or young person who may be adopted, their parents and guardians
    • Persons wishing to adopt a child
    • Adopted persons, the child’s adopted parents, birth parents and former guardians.

Statutory complaints process
If someone wishes to make a complaint to a local authority children’s service, there is a statutory 3 stage complaints process set out in s.26 Children Act 1989.  

The 3 stages are as follows:

  1. Stage oneLocal resolution. 

The local authority should make attempts to resolve matters by considering using mediation and/or conflict resolution 

The local authority to respond to the complaint within 10 days or up to 20 days for complex complaints.

If not resolved, or if there is an agreement, to proceed to stage two

2. Stage two– Independent investigation

The complainant can request the local authority to appoint an independent investigator who will oversee the investigation and produce a report. 

The local authority has up to 13 weeks to complete this process.

If still not resolved then to proceed to stage three.

3. Stage three – independent Review

This involves a review by an independent panel of three independent people. The panel hearing must be held within 30 days of the request to hear the complaint.

The panel will produce its recommendations within 20 days of the panel hearing.

if not resolved, the complainant can make request the ombudsman to investigate.


Should it be requested or required, the local authority can assist in identifying an advocate to support the complainant.

Statutory Guidance 

Helpful assistance can be found in the statutory guidance, which explains local authority responsibilities when complaints are made.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

If, after exhausting the local authority’s statutory complaints process, the complainant is still not satisfied, they can then request the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (the Ombudsman) to investigate the complaint. The Ombudsman will investigate matters of maladministration and service failures by the local authority. 

A helpful fact sheet has been produced by the Ombudsman for parents, carers , children and young people who wish to make a complaint to the Ombudsman.

Good practice guidance and how to avoid complaints escalating

1. Seek the child’s or the parents’ views 

Before the local authority decision is finalised, consider have all relevant persons been consulted and their views sought.

The case of Miss X publicised by the Ombudsman (case ref: 22 012 350) in September 2023 highlights the importance of clear communication.

Facts of the case:

In May 2021, Miss X, the mother of a child who was voluntarily accommodated under S.20 Children Act 1989, complained to the Ombudsman, amongst other matters, that despite having parental responsibility, her views had not been taken into consideration, and she had not been consulted on decisions during her child’s looked after reviews.

The local authority accepted that there had been failings in its communications with Miss X. Compensation was awarded to Miss X for the distress and frustration caused to Miss X and delays caused in the statutory complaints process.

2. Effective communication could lead to the complaint not being progressed.

If someone has indicated they are unhappy with the service or lack of service or do not understand the reasons for the decision made, then consider setting up a meeting with the social worker and team manager to try to resolve the issue or misunderstanding before a formal complaint is made.

If the matter is not resolved, the potential complaint should be advised of the complaints process and signposted to further information, including the local authority’s formal process by providing the leaflet or the local authority’s webpage link.

The complainant should be advised as to how they can progress their complaint and the name of the local authority’s designated complaints officer.

The complaint can be made in person, by telephone, in writing by letter, email or if available the local authority’s online form.

The Ombudsman has a very helpful fact sheet for people who wish to make a complaint about Children Services which can be found here:

3. If a complaint is made, be clear with the complainant what their complaint is about and respond to the complaint within timescales

Once a complaint is made, provide a formal response within the stipulated timescales. Otherwise, as can be seen in the case of Mrs X, the complaint can result in the matter being investigated by the Ombudsman. 

In June 2023, the Ombudsman publicised its decision relating to another case of Mrs X’s complaint. Mrs X has a Special Guardian Order for a relative child and complained to the local authority about the lack of support from Children Services.

The findings by the Ombudsman were that the local authority had failed to issue a stage one response in line with the statutory complaints process guidance.  Thereby denying Mrs X the opportunity to escalate to stage two of the complaints process and set out remedies to be undertaken by the local authority.

4. If there is to be a delay, communicate the reasons why.

If the complainant is not satisfied after the stage 3 process is completed or if the local authority has decided that the complaint does not fall within the remits of the statutory complaints process, the complainant should be signposted the complainant to the Ombudsmen process.

Ending on a positive note, complaints investigated by the local authority or the Ombudsman are helpful in providing an active opportunity for local authorities to learn and develop better practice. It also provides positive opportunities for the local authority to understand children’s and parents’ experiences with the local authority and ensure that it can develop and deliver the best possible service in the future.

How we can help

We are specialists in providing legal and social care training. If you require bespoke and practical skilled training on any legal or social care matters, please contact us for a no-obligation discussion of your training needs.


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The contents of this guide are for information and are not intended to be relied upon as legal advice

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