MPs often receive constituency correspondence complaining about someone’s experience with the justice system and/or different parts of the legal profession. Typically this follows on from an unfavourable decision in a court or tribunal or an otherwise negative outcome to a legal dispute. However, sometimes it is about administrative or accessibility issues within HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) itself.
It is important, when a constituent has a grievance of this kind, that they clearly understand who and what they are complaining about. This will help them understand who they should direct their complaint to. This article summarises the different routes by which a constituent can complain, and how to tell which is likely to be the most appropriate.
Complaining about a judge
When a constituent is unhappy about a judge, it is usually because of:
- a process decision taken during a case or the substance of what the judge has decided (‘points of law’); or
- the judge’s personal conduct towards them during the case (‘judicial misconduct’) .
Points of law
Whether a court or tribunal has followed the right process or reached the legally correct decision are what are known as points of law. These can only be challenged by way of an appeal or a judicial review to a higher court or tribunal. This includes questions about bias (whether perceived or actual) on the part of a judicial office-holder.
Constituents should seek independent legal advice from an appropriate practitioner with professional indemnity insurance if considering challenging a judge on a point of law. (See our Constituency Casework article on Legal help)
Judicial misconduct is about the personal behaviour of a judge and/or their failure to meet professional obligations owed by virtue of their office.
Disciplinary powers, in respect of judges in England and Wales, are shared between and often exercised jointly by the Lord Chancellor (a UK Government Minister) and the Lord Chief Justice (or if relevant, a Tribunal President). Disciplinary powers include those to:
- give informal advice or warnings;
- give formal advice or warnings;
- suspend an office-holder from their duties (including interim suspension during disciplinary proceedings); and
- remove an office-holder from their position
In England and Wales, the vast majority of complaints about judicial misconduct should be made to the Judicial Complaints Investigations Office (JCIO). It investigates complaints about:
- Court of Appeal judges
- High Court judges
- Crown Court judges
- County Court judges
- Family Court judges
- Tribunal Chamber Presidents
- Coroners and Assistant Coroners
However the JCIO cannot hear complaints about:
- Judges in Scotland’s or Northern Ireland’s courts
- UK Supreme Court judges
- Magistrates (lay judges)
- Tribunal members (except for Chamber Presidents)
These each have a different investigating body.
These each have a different investigating body. This is explained more fully in Constituency Casework article on Complaining about personal conduct of judicial office-holders.
If someone is not happy with a decision of the JCIO (or another investigating body), they can raise a complaint with the Judicial Appointments and Conduct Ombudsman. It has the power, among other things, to set aside the decision of an investigating body in cases of maladministration (ie when the investigation has been carried out in a flawed way).
Complaint about courts and tribunals
Some complaints appear initially to be about judges but on closer inspection are actually about court or tribunal administration, staff or facilities. Complaints of this kind should not be directed at the JCIO or other investigating bodies.
Instead complaints of this kind should be raised with HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) or if relevant, its Scottish or Northern Ireland equivalent. HMCTS has its own online complaints procedure, to be used if an issue cannot be solved directly with the relevant court or tribunal centre. Complaints can also be made by email, phone or in writing.
If a constituent cannot resolve a complaint with HMCTS, it is open to an MP to refer the case to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO).
Complaints about other legal professionals
If a constituent wants to complain about a lawyer who is not a judge, neither the JCIO nor HMCTS is responsible for this. Each branch of the legal profession, in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, has its own regulatory and complaint handling bodies.
In England and Wales, complaints should be made to:
In Scotland, complaints about both solicitors and advocates should be made to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.
In Northern Ireland, complaints should be made to: