The Children Act 1989 Complaints Procedure

This fact sheet is for people who wish to make, or have already made, a complaint about Children’s Services. It advises you on the way the council should deal with your complaint and when you can ask us to consider it.

How will the council consider my complaint?

Many complaints about Children’s Services, made by or on behalf of children, can be considered under a special three stage procedure – the Children Act procedure. If you complain to the council, it should tell you whether it is going to consider your complaint through its own procedure, or under the Children Act statutory procedure.

What is covered under the statutory procedure?

The procedure covers complaints about the council’s services to children in need or in care; about how the council applies to take a child into care; many complaints about fostering, special guardianship and adoption services and complaints about services to children leaving care.

The procedure exists to consider complaints not just by or on behalf of children, but from their parents, foster carers, special guardians, adopters and others who may have an interest in their wellbeing.

You can find further details about what is covered by following the link to the relevant guidance (Getting the best from complaints) and our Guide for Practitioners: Children's statutory complaints process.

Is there anything excluded from the procedure?

The procedure does not include complaints about child protection matters or how the council assesses families and prepares reports for the court in private proceedings (so-called Section 7 or 37 reports). These will be dealt with under the council’s own complaints procedure. Councils should be clear about which procedure they are using, and why.

Councils may decide not to accept a complaint that is made late (ie over a year after the events complained of) but should not impose this restriction rigidly. It may suspend investigation of a complaint if there is ongoing court action or police investigations.

If you believe the council is unreasonably refusing to investigate your complaint, you can complain to us.

How will the council consider the complaint?

The procedure has three stages: the first is a response to the complaint from the department concerned. The second stage is an investigation and report carried out by someone independent of the department and with independent oversight. The third stage is a Review Panel. The Panel is made up of independent people.

There are strict timescales for responses at each stage. You should get a stage 1 response within 10 days of complaining. If you ask for your complaint to go to stage 2, the investigation should take no more than 25 days for a simple complaint and no more than 65 days if the complaint is more complex. If a complaint unavoidably goes over these deadlines, the council should seek your agreement.

A stage 3 Review Panel should meet within 30 days of you requesting it. Afterwards, the Panel must provide you with its report within five working days. The council then has 15 working days to respond to the Panel’s findings.

We can, and do, criticise councils for exceeding these deadlines without good reason and we can consider the impact on you of any avoidable delay in the process.

When can I bring my complaint to the Ombudsman?

Because the Children Act procedure is set out in law, we normally expect you to complete it before coming to us. However, we will sometimes accept a complaint early if, for example:

  • there are serious delays in the process;

  • the council has admitted fault but hasn’t agreed to put a remedy in place; 

Please contact us if you believe any of these circumstances apply to you.

What happens if I am still unhappy after the council has completed its response to my complaint?

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process.

It would help if you have the council’s written or email response to your complaint (if it has sent one) when you call, as our Adviser will ask you some questions about what the letter or email says. The complaint will be passed to one of our Assessment teams for consideration.

Examples of complaints about the Children Act procedure

Mrs X complained the council delayed moving her complaint on at Stage 2 of the statutory procedure. If the council has accepted a complaint under the statutory procedure, it has to go to Stage 2 or 3 if the complainant asks for it. There is a time limit of 25 working days to complete the investigation from the date the complainant request this in writing, though that can be extended to 65 working days in complex cases if the complainant agrees. In this case, we found that the council had failed to complete the Stage 2 investigation almost four months after Mrs X requested escalation. The council agreed to complete the Stage 2 investigation within a further six weeks, advise Mrs X of her right to request a Stage 3 panel hearing if she was dissatisfied with the Stage 2 response, and to pay her £100 in recognition of the delay at Stage 2.

Mr Y complained via an advocate that the council failed to implement the recommendations of the Stage 2 investigation and the Stage 3 panel hearing about payments when it completed the statutory process. We can consider whether the council, by failing to provide a suitable remedy recommended by a Stage 3 panel, has dealt properly with the complaint. In this case, we decided the council had not dealt properly with the complaint and it was therefore open to us to look at the decision the council made. We found the council had removed exceptional circumstances payments from Mr Y by wrongly including money it should not have done in a calculation and had maintained this position despite the recommendations of the Stage 2 investigation and the Stage 3 panel. This caused Mr Y economic hardship. The council agreed to pay Mr Y £500 for the inconvenience caused, and to re-instate and backdate the exceptional circumstances payments, only making any future changes after a proper review. Among other matters, it also agreed to remind staff of the importance of effective complaint handling.

Mr X complained the council had failed to deal with his complaint properly, or to answer his questions. He said the council had issued contradictory reports containing statements without any supporting evidence that could potentially ruin his life and that of his children.
Some matters, such as child protection, are not covered under the statutory Children Act procedure, though there is a separate procedure for child protection matters the council should use. We may investigate those matters where there has been no court involvement and it would not be reasonable for the person to go to court.
However, assessments and reports written by councils often relate to disputes about where children should live and the extent of their contact with a parent. These matters can only be decided by courts and a legal bar prevents us investigating them. We may therefore decide that other matters, such as how the council reached the views in its assessment, or the way the council dealt with a complaint about this, cannot be separated from the substantive matter concerning contact or residence that underlies the complaint.
In this case, we decided the matters Mr X complained of  were closely related to recent court proceedings. Had there been no court proceedings at the time Mr X complained, we would have been likely to expect him to contest any recommendations about the contact or residence arrangements for his children via a court

Mr X complained the council refused to consider his complaint about a failure to protect him from abuse and neglect when he was a child because this had happened several years earlier. He had spent most of his childhood in care and was now a young adult.
We will consider whether the council has properly considered to refuse a complaint on the grounds of time, particularly if the complainant was young or vulnerable at the time of the events they complain of and could not realistically have made a complaint sooner. In this case, Mr X was a child at the time of the events complained of. We decided it was not reasonable given Mr X’s circumstances to have expected him to complain earlier. The council agreed to open a historic child protection investigation, giving Mr X regular progress updates until it was completed. It also agreed to remind staff of the need to consider using discretion to investigate complaints that fall under the statutory Children Act procedure.

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

November 2023

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