Unreasonable complainant behaviour policy
Version 1.2 - August 2019
Aims of the policy
We are committed to providing a high-quality customer feedback service, dealing with complaints in a fair and impartial way. In a small number of cases complainants, either individually or on behalf of someone else, pursue their complaint in an unreasonable and persistent way. Where this is considered to be habitual or persistent, it can negatively impact on the investigation of their complaint and the ability of staff to provide a quality service to other customers. We must also ensure that our staff, contractors and partners are protected from unreasonable and abusive behaviour.
The policy aims to set out a clear and fair process for dealing with situations where a complainant, either individually or as a representative of someone else, might be considered to be unacceptable, persistent or unreasonable, by detailing actions that will be taken to restrict or change access to the complaints procedure in order to deal with this type of behaviour.
In applying this policy, it is important to distinguish between those people who are being unreasonable and those who raise a number of issues that are relevant to our services and responsibilities.
The policy should be applied as a last resort and only after all reasonable measures have been taken to try and resolve a complaint and only with the authorisation of the Director or an Assistant Director.
Reasonable adjustments will be made to this policy, as appropriate, where it is believed a person’s disability may be impacting on their approach.
Definition of unreasonable complainant behaviour
This policy explains what we consider to be persistent and unacceptable or unreasonable behaviour. It gives details of the actions we may take against customers or their representatives who behave in this way.
We have adopted the Local Government Ombudsman’s definition of unreasonable complainant behaviour and unreasonably persistent complainants, which is:
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.
The term habitual means ‘done repeatedly or as a habit’. The following definitions of habitual or unreasonable complainants will be used for the repeated and/or obsessive pursuit of:
- unreasonable complaints and/or unrealistic outcomes
- reasonable complaints in an unreasonable manner.
To help in identifying and managing people who are disruptive to Wolverhampton Homes by acting unreasonably, it is important to differentiate between ‘persistent’ and ‘unreasonably persistent’ complainants.
Customers might be considered ‘persistent’ because they feel that their complaint has not been handled correctly. Raising legitimate queries or criticisms of a complaints procedure should not in itself lead to someone being regarded as an unreasonably persistent complainant.
Habitual, unreasonable and persistent complainants may have justified complaints or grievances but may be pursuing them in inappropriate ways, or they may be intent on pursuing complaints which appear to have no substance, or which have already been investigated and determined. Their contact with us may be amicable but still place unrealistic demands on staff which can be excessively time-consuming, or it may be that contact is very emotionally charged and distressing for all involved. This can create difficulty in handling such complainants.
While we endeavour to respond with patience and empathy to the needs of all complainants, there are times when there is nothing further which can reasonably be done to help or resolve a real or perceived problem.
Examples of unreasonable actions and behaviours
Raising of legitimate questions or criticisms of the complaints procedure as it progresses, for example; if agreed timescales are not met, should not in itself lead to someone being seen as an unreasonably persistent complainant. Similarly, the fact that a complainant is dissatisfied with the outcome of a complaint and seeks to challenge it, should not necessarily lead them to be labelled unreasonable or unreasonably persistent.
We do not expect staff to tolerate unacceptable behaviour by complainants or any customer. Unacceptable behaviour includes behaviour which is abusive, offensive or threatening and may include:
- using abusive or foul language, either on the telephone or in person
- sending multiple unsolicited emails
- leaving multiple voicemails
- in any situation where staff or those close to them have been subject to or threatened with physical violence.
In these cases, personal contact with the complainant will be stopped and the complainant will be dealt with in writing only. All such incidents should be recorded and reported in accordance with the section titled 'Dealing with unreasonable complainants' below.
The examples below are not exhaustive and are provided as guidance for staff to identify behaviours and complaints that may be covered by this policy. The behaviours may apply to single or repeated incidents:
- specify the grounds of a complaint, despite offers of help
- cooperate with the complaint investigation process
- accept that certain issues are not within the scope of the complaint’s procedure
- accept the decision by repeatedly arguing points with no new evidence
Insisting on or displaying behaviours of:
- the complaint being dealt with in ways which fall outside the adopted complaints procedure or with good practice
- making unjustified complaints about staff who are trying to deal with the issues and asking to have them replaced
- changing the basis of the complaint as the investigation proceeds
- denying or changing statements they 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 false documents from themselves or others
- to have electronically recorded meetings and conversations without the prior knowledge and consent of the other people involved
- adopting a 'scatter gun' approach by pursuing parallel complaints on the same issue with various organisations
- making excessive demands on the time and resources of staff with lengthy phone calls, emails to numerous staff, or detailed letters every few days, and expecting immediate responses
- harassing or verbally abusing, or otherwise trying to intimidate staff dealing with their complaint. This includes the use of foul or inappropriate language, offensive and discriminatory language, or publishing their complaints in other forms of media.
- submitting repeat complaints with minor additions or changes, and insisting that they are investigated as new complaints
- raising secondary or new issues while a complaint is being addressed that were not part of the original complaint
- repeatedly focusing on conspiracy theories and/or will not accept documented evidence as being factual. This may include complainants who do not accept that facts can sometimes be difficult to verify after a long period of time has elapsed
- denying receipt of a fair response despite communication specifically answering their questions and/or concerns
Prior to implementing the policy
The policy supports our overall aim of dealing with all complainants in a transparent, consistent, fair and reasonable way. Before implementing this policy, the Customer Feedback team must check:
- the complaint is being or has been investigated in line with the Complaints Policy
- all records of previous contact are checked to ensure that all appropriate steps have been taken to provide the customer with requested answers or information
- whether full and reasonable responses have already been given
- that new or significant concerns are not being raised that require consideration as a separate case
- we are confident that the complaint has been dealt with in line with other similar complaints and that the complainant has been kept up-to-date and that communication has been adequate with the complainant prior to them becoming unreasonable
- whether the behaviour of the complainant or their representatives could be considered unreasonable
- all relevant departments have met to discuss the complaint where there are cross-team issues highlighted by the complainant
- the complainant, whenever possible, will be warned that if the specific behaviour or actions continue, consideration will be given to apply restrictions as detailed in Section 5.4.
Applying the criteria with care, fairness and due consideration for the complainant’s circumstances. This will consider:
- physical and or mental health conditions which may explain difficult behaviour
- the impact of bereavement, loss or significant and/or sudden changes to the complainant’s lifestyle, quality of life or life expectancy
- consideration of the proportionality and appropriateness of the proposed restriction in comparison with the behaviour and the impact on staff
The Customer Feedback team should also consider whether any further action could be taken prior to applying this policy. This may include:
- gaining an independent view by raising the issue with a Director and/or Assistant Director with no previous involvement
- considering offering a meeting with staff where this has not been held at a local level as a means to dispel misunderstandings. This is only appropriate where risks have been assessed
- considering a strategy to agree a cross-team approach where more than one department is being contacted by the complainant
- considering whether the help of an advocate may be helpful, particularly in the case of individuals with mental or physical disabilities, cultural and/or language barriers
- considering the use of ground rules for continuing contact with the complainant
If the Customer Feedback team consider it reasonable to apply the policy, at the point that it is being considered, the team will contact the customer to inform them that we are considering applying this policy and the reasons why. This provides an opportunity to explain to the complainant what the issue is and gives them the opportunity to change their behaviour before restrictions are applied.
Dealing with unreasonable complainants
The decision to apply this policy will be an exceptional step and must be authorised by a Director or Assistant Director, following consultation with the relevant manager / Head of Service and Customer Feedback Manager.
Any action taken should be proportionate to the nature and frequency of the complainant’s current contact based on considerations in Section 4.0.
Where a complaint is considered to be unreasonable, it is still important to ensure that the customer is able to access our services, including the complaints service. New complaints from people who have come under this policy will be treated on their merits.
There are a number of options available to help staff manage unreasonable complaints effectively and fairly, with minimal disruption to other customers.
The following options may be suitable, taking the complainant’s behaviour and circumstances into account:
- advising the complainant:
- that repeated calls regarding the complaint in question are not acceptable and will be terminated, or
- their complaint has been responded to as fully as possible and there is nothing to be added.
- placing limits on the number and duration of contacts with staff per week or month
- restricting the number of calls that will be taken or agreeing a timetable for contacting the service and offering a restricted time slot
- limiting the complainant to one mode of contact; for example, telephone, letter or email
- requiring the complainant to:
- contact just one named member of staff as their single point of contact, and agreeing when this should be
- allow any personal contacts to take place in the presence of a witness and in a suitable location
- make contact via a third party such as an advocate
- enter into an agreement about their conduct
- informing the complainant that future correspondence will be read and placed on file, but not acknowledged or registered where relating to complaints about the same matter
- adopting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy – this could include a standard communication for example; “Wolverhampton Homes operates a zero-tolerance policy and the safety and respect of its staff is paramount at all times.”
If the situation cannot be resolved, the Customer Feedback team will ask for authorisation to apply this policy as detailed in 'Dealing with unreasonable complainants' above, and inform the customer of our decision and the reasons behind it. We will explain any restrictions in detail, and how we intend to manage any contact with the complainant or their representative in future.
When the decision has been taken to apply this policy to a complainant, we will aim to arrange a meeting with the complainant to explain:
- why the decision has been taken
- what action has been taken
- the duration of that action
Following the meeting we will write to the complainant to confirm the decision that has been made. A copy of this policy will be enclosed with the letter. All relevant staff should be informed of the decision, where appropriate, so that there is a consistent and co-ordinated approach across the company.
Urgent or Extreme Cases
In the event of an urgent or extreme case, safeguarding of staff is paramount. Zero tolerance policies and procedures should be adopted, and any incident of this nature should be discussed immediately with a member of the Senior Management Team (SMT). An action plan should be developed, and a review should be carried out on the case at the first opportunity after the event.
Consideration should be given to whether we should take further action. This may include involvement of the police or legal action, where it is believed the complainant has committed a criminal offence, such as harassment, assault on staff or criminal damage. This could also include consideration of using the risk management or health and safety procedures to follow up an event in respect of the impact on staff.
This policy works alongside our Extreme Unacceptable Behaviour Policy which is designed to protect members of staff that are subject to abusive behaviour, unreasonable and/or persistent demands.
Operating the policy
The decision must be recorded on the complaints system and must be supported by the following information:
- grounds for applying the policy
- any restrictions to be applied, including scope and detail
- date for review – typically after six months and not longer than 12 months, but in exceptional cases this may be extended. In such cases the restrictions would be reviewed on a quarterly basis
Records will be kept of the name and address of each complainant who is treated as abusive, unreasonable or persistent, or any other person who so aids the complainant:
- when the restrictions came into force and end
- what the restrictions are
- when the person and the council were advised
Employees should notify the customer feedback manager of any contact in breach of the restrictions used so that further steps can be taken to manage future contact. This should also be recorded on the complaints system.
Appeal of decision by complainant or their representative
A complainant can appeal against restricted and or changes to contact. The appeal will be considered by a Director or Assistant Director who has not been involved in the original decision. They will advise the complainant in writing whether the restricted or changes to contact arrangements still apply or a different course of action has been agreed.
Reviewing decisions to implement policy
The status of the complainant will be kept under review. A decision to restrict contact may be re-considered if the complainant demonstrates a more acceptable approach. The complainant will be told the result of this review if the decision to apply this policy has been changed or extended. The Senior Management Team will be provided with a regular report giving information about members of the public who have been treated as unreasonable and/or persistent as per this policy.
This policy will be reviewed on a yearly basis. Changes may be made to the policy ahead of the review date in line with changes in law or business requirements.
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