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.

The Children Act 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. You can find further details about what is covered by following the link to the relevant guidance (Getting the best from complaints).

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.

The procedure is primarily to consider complaints by or about children. If your complaint is about how the council has treated you as an adult, it will probably be considered under the council’s own procedure.

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.

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?

Please call us on 0300 061 0614. 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

Mr X complained the council refused to consider his complaint at stage 2 of the statutory procedure as it said doing so would not produce a different outcome.
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. In this case, we found fault with the council for refusing and it agreed to move Mr X’s complaint to the next stage. We told Mr X he could return to us and we would consider the issue complained of if he remained dissatisfied at the end of the complaints process. If the Council had refused our request to move the complaint on, we would have considered the issue immediately.
Ms F complained about the content of an assessment of her children carried out by a social worker. This was for a court to decide issues of residency and contact.
This complaint is not covered by the Children Act procedure and, because it relates to evidence for court, the Ombudsman cannot investigate either the report or the way the council has considered Ms A’s complaint about it.
Mr X and Ms Y complained the council had dealt with their complaint at all three stages of the Children Act procedure and agreed there was serious fault. However, while it had accepted fault in most of the matters raised, the couple wanted it to take more action.
The Ombudsman can consider whether the council, by failing to provide a suitable remedy, has dealt properly with the complaint. In this case, while we were unable to find further fault, we decided the council had not taken proper account of the effect of the fault it found on Mr X and Mrs Y. We made further recommendations, which were accepted by the council, including reporting back to us on steps taken to prevent a specific serious error recurring in future cases.
Mr Y says that the council has wrongly investigated false allegations of abuse made against him by his children’s mother. It refuses to investigate his complaints about this.
These circumstances are not covered by the Children Act procedure, but the council should still look at them under its own procedure. The Ombudsman could consider a complaint both about the council’s failure to deal with the complaint and the issues at the heart of the complaint. One outcome could be that we ask the council to consider the complaint properly. Mr Y could then come back to us if he was not happy with the council’s response.

Miss X complained the council refused to consider her complaint about repeated physical and emotional abuse she suffered in foster care because the events happened several years earlier.
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, Miss X was very young at the time of the events complained of. She was still a child when she complained to us with the help of an advocate. We decided it was obvious that she could not have complained earlier and asked the council to immediately investigate her complaint, starting at stage 2 of the procedure, which it agreed. We also told Miss X’s advocate we would consider the issues complained of if she remained dissatisfied and returned to us at the end of the complaints process.

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.

Last updated: July 2020