Police complaints: handling casework involving a police complaint

Constituents sometimes contact their MP because they are dissatisfied with the police. Some constituents seek their MP’s help to complain about the police. This constituency casework article is part of a series designed to support MPs and their staff handling these types of cases.

This article outlines helpful questions to consider before working on casework involving a police complaint. Separate articles help MPs and their staff to understand the police complaints system and handle casework involving dissatisfaction with the police.

Questions to consider before handling casework involving a police complaint

When did my constituent complain?

A new police complaints system became operational in England and Wales on 1 February 2020. Complaints submitted before 1 February 2020 are handled under the old system. It is therefore important to determine when the constituent made their complaint to provide them with the right advice.

Who is dealing with my constituent’s complaint?

In England and Wales, the public can complain to their local force, their PCC/ Mayor or the IOPC. Police forces, PCCs/ Mayors and the IOPC forward complaints they aren’t responsible for to the body that is. When a complaint is forwarded or referred to another body the complainant is informed. It is helpful to clarify with your constituent which body is dealing with the complaint as it may be a different body to the one they reported their complaint to.

Is my constituent’s complaint connected to an ongoing criminal investigation?

English and Welsh complaint handling can be ‘suspended’ when there are serious concerns it will affect a criminal investigation. Not all complaints connected to criminal investigations are suspended, but this might be the cause of a delay in some circumstances. It is therefore helpful to know if your constituent’s complaint relates to a criminal investigation and whether it has been suspended. Complainants are informed when their complaint is suspended.

If the complainant disagrees with the decision to suspend the handling of their complaint, they can ask the IOPC to consider this decision. The IOPC can direct police forces to resume the handling of a suspended complaint when they think it is in the public interest. Otherwise the handling of suspended complaints will be resume when those dealing with them think the suspension is no longer necessary.

What stage in the complaints process is my constituent’s complaint at?

The most important thing to learn about a constituent’s complaint is what stage in the police complaints process it is at. This will help you understand what options your constituent has to progress their complaint.

There are four stages to the police complaints process in England and Wales. The table below provides a brief overview of each stage. Detailed information is set out in statutory guidance on the police complaints system. The more serious or complex the complaint the more likely it is to travel further through the stages.

Complainants receive regular communications as their complaint progresses through the system. Constituents who are unsure about where in the complaints process their complaint is at can ask the body handling their complaint (normally their local force).

The Scottish police complaints system can be understood in six stages similar to those used in England and Wales. Statutory guidance on police complaints in Scotland provides further information. The police complaints system is very different in Northern Ireland where the Police Ombudsman handles all complaints.

Current systemOld system
Complaints made after 1 February 2020Complaints made before 1 February 2020
STAGE ONE: RECORDING
At this stage a decision on whether to ‘record’ a complaint is made.
Current system
Police forces responsible for recording most complaints. Complaints concerning the conduct of a force’s chief officer are recorded by the PCC. In Hertfordshire, North Yorkshire and Northamptonshire the PCC is responsible for recording all complaints.
Old system
Police forces responsible for recording most complaints. Complaints concerning the conduct of a force’s chief officer are recorded by the PCC.
Expectation that complainants are contacted as soon as possible about their complaint.Expectation that recording decisions are made within ten days.
Complaints must be recorded if they concern certain serious allegations or the complainant requests it.Complaints must be recorded unless they are withdrawn by the complainant or meet certain criteria. 
Complaints that aren’t recorded are resolved at this stage; normally by a conversation which satisfies the complainant’s concerns. Complainants that aren’t satisfied can ask for the complaint to be recorded.Complaints that are not recorded progress no further. Complainants can appeal a decision not to record a complaint to the IOPC.
STAGE TWO: REFERRAL
At this stage certain recorded complaints are referred to the IOPC.
Complaints involving or connected to the following allegations must be referred to the IOPC “without delay”:
#was involved in someone’s death or serious injury whilst on duty.
#committed a serious assault or sexual offence.
#committed any serious offence, including serious offences aggravated by discriminatory behaviour.
#committed serious corruption including abusing their position for sexual purposes or to pursue an inappropriate emotional relationship.  
#committed serious misconduct where their behaviour was aggravated by discrimination.
Complaints involving a credible allegation of serious misconduct or criminal behaviour by a chief officer (or a deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) must be referred to the IOPC without delay.
Current system
The IOPC have the power to ‘call in’ any complaint at any point. Complaints that have been ‘called in’ must be referred to the IOPC. The IOPC also have the power to treat complaints that come to their attention as having been referred to them without a formal referral. This is known as the ‘power of initiative’.
Old system
The IOPC have the power to ‘call in’ any complaint. Complaints that have been ‘called in’ must be referred to the IOPC.
STAGE THREE: INVESTIGATION
The first step in this stage involves a decision about how to handle a recorded complaint. 
Current system
Complaints not referred to the IOPC may be resolved at this step without a formal investigation by either an action in response to the complaint or by a decision to take no further action.
Old system
Complaints not referred to the IOPC can be handled by ‘local resolution’ or ‘local investigation’. They may also be subject to a ‘disapplication’. When complaints are disapplied they are resolved informally at this step.
Complaints involving a credible allegation that a person serving in the police undertook serious misconduct, committed a criminal offence or breached the right to life/ prohibition from torture must be investigated. Other complaints must be investigated if it is “reasonable and proportionate” to do so.Complaints designated for ‘local investigation’ move to the investigation step. ‘Local resolution’ complaints are resolved at this step. Complaints that are subject to disapplication are taken no further. 
The IOPC decides how complaints referred to them should be investigated. They may send a complaint back to the relevant force for investigation or decide to investigate the complaint itself. Sometimes, when they send complaints back to the local force the IOPC will tell the force how they should investigate it, what is known as a ‘directed investigation’.The IOPC decides how a complaint referred to them should be handled. They may decide that the complaint does not need investigating. If they decide a complaint should be investigated, they determine how. Complaints referred to the IOPC can be investigated by ‘local investigation’, ‘supervised investigation’, ‘managed investigation’ or ‘independent investigation’.
Recorded complaints earmarked for investigation are then investigated.
All investigation should be dealt with reasonably and proportionately. Sometimes investigations are subject to ‘special procedures’ or ‘special requirements’ when they involve certain allegations.
Current system
Investigations should be completed in a timely manner. If an investigation takes longer than 12 months police forces and the IOPC must explain to one another, and the relevant Police and Crime Commissioner/ Mayor, why.
Old system
No time limit for how long investigations should take but they should be conducted in a timely manner.
At the end of the investigation a report is produced that sets out the evidence and any learnings that can be taken forward.  

In ‘special procedure’ investigations, the report will provide an opinion about whether those involved should be subject to misconduct proceedings. It will then be for the appropriate authority (normally the police force) to decide whether to take the report’s findings forward.  

Incidents involving a criminal offence will be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service to be dealt with through the criminal justice system.  

Reports involving complaints connected to someone’s death will be passed to the coroner conducting the inquest.  
STAGE FOUR: REVIEW/ APPEAL STAGE
At this stage complainants with recorded complaints have the right to apply for a review/ appeal of their complaint.
Current system
Complaints have 28 days to apply to have the outcome of their complaint reviewed from the day after the decision was sent to them.
Old system
Complainants may have a right to appeal either the outcome of their complaint or the way it was investigated in certain circumstances. Appeals must be made within 28 days.
Complaints involving certain serious allegations are reviewed by the IOPC, all other complaints are reviewed by the relevant Police and Crime Commissioner’s office (or the body they have designated).Complaints involving certain allegations are appealed to the IOPC, all other complaints are handled by the police force concerned.
The IOPC can direct those who investigated the complaint to progress it further or change their findings.
PCCs/ Mayors can recommend how a complaint can be progressed or how findings could be changed. There is an expectation that these recommendations are complied with, but the body investigating can disagree. 
Appeals are either ‘upheld’ or ‘not upheld’. Appropriate action must be taken to resolve the issues identified by an ‘upheld appeal’. Those that are ‘not upheld’ are taken no further.

Does my constituent have a right to appeal/ seek a review about their complaint?

Those with recorded complaints made after 1 February 2020 in England and Wales can apply to have the outcome of their complaint ‘reviewed’ when they are unhappy. Complainants must apply for a review within 28 days of the day after the outcome was sent to them.

Most reviews are carried out by the local Police and Crime Commissioner’s office (or the Mayor’s office in Manchester and London), or an organisation designated to conduct reviews by the PCC/ Mayor. PCCs/ Mayors should have information about applying for a review on their websites. This review process can lead to recommendations for progressing the complaint further or for changes to the original findings. There is an expectation that these recommendations are taken forward, but forces can disagree to them with good reason.

Reviews involving certain serious allegations are carried out by the IOPC. The IOPC can direct those who investigated the complaint to progress the complaint or change their findings.

There’s a right to ‘appeal’ the outcome of some recorded complaints lodged before 1 February 2020 in England and Wales. These appeals are either handled by the force themselves or, in certain circumstances, the IOPC. Further information on the appeals process for complaints lodged before 1 February 2020 can be found in statutory guidance from 2015 (PDF)

Constituents who have exhausted the review/ appeals process have reached the end of the police complaints system. The only remaining avenue for them is judicial review. Constituents considering judicial review should consult appropriate legal advice. Information about accessing legal advice can be found on the Library’s casework page Legal help: where to go and how to pay.

Those unhappy with how their complaint was handled in Scotland can ask the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner to review their complaint. In Northern Ireland there is no right to review/ appeal a decision of the Police Ombudsman but complainants can complain about the service they received from them.