This information should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice. Read the disclaimer.

This article provides general information on complaining about local authority children’s services in England, including the statutory complaints process under the Children Act 1989. However, an individual considering complaining would be advised to seek specialist advice tailored to the specific circumstances of their case. They may, for example like to contact one of the following organisations:

The Library briefing on how to find and pay for legal help may also be useful.

Statutory complaints process

Under section 26(3) of the Children Act 1989, every local authority is required to establish a procedure for considering certain complaints about children’s services.

The procedure covers complaints about:

  • the council’s services to children in need or in care
  • how a council applies to take a child into care
  • fostering and adoption services
  • services to children leaving care

The statutory procedure does not cover 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 (see below).

More information and the kinds of decisions or services a complaint can be about is provided by the Family Rights Group.

Who can make a complaint?

Complaints can be made by a parent, a person/ people caring for a child, or family members who are involved with the child. Children and young people are also able to make a complaint themselves.

Complaints should be made within one year of the actions or decision being complained about.

For a full list of who can complain, see paragraph 2.6.1 of the Department for Educations (DfE) statutory guidance on Children’s social care: getting the best from complaints.

Complaints procedure

Details of the statutory procedure by which complaints are considered are set out in The Children Act 1989 Representations Procedure (England) Regulations 2006, SI 2006/1738. Local authorities must also have regard to statutory guidance on Children’s social care: getting the best from complaints, published by the Department for Education.

There are three stages to the children’s services complaints process, each with an associated timescale:

Stage 1: Local resolution and informal problem-solving

This stage involves a social worker, team manager or children’s services complaints officer. The complainant should have a response in 10 working days, although the 2006 Regulations set out a further 10 working days for more complex complaints (Regulations 14 and 15).

Stage 2: Formal investigation by an independent person

A report must be sent to the complainant within 25 working days. If the report will take longer, children’s services must let the complainant know of the delay and explain why. The extension can be for a maximum of 65 working days (Regulation 17).

Stage 3: Consideration by a Review Panel

The complainant must request a Review Panel within 20 working days of the stage two response.  The Panel must meet within 30 working days of the request being made and must then issue its report within five working days. The local authority must then write to the person making the complaint to give them a final response within 15 working days of receiving the Panel’s report (Regulations 18 to 20).

Complaints using the local authority’s own complaints procedure

Complaints that are not covered by the statutory procedure, for example about child protection matters, can be made under the local authority’s own complaints procedure.

All councils have published complaints procedures that show how they investigate complaints. These vary but usually include two or more stages, each operated by a more senior member of staff than the last stage or, in some cases, elected councillors.

At each stage the council will normally send a written response and invite the complainant to comment. The council will normally tell the complainant when it writes to them if there is another stage of the complaints procedure.

What if the complainant is unhappy with the outcome?

If someone remains unhappy after completing the local authority complaints process, either under the statutory procedure or the council’s own procedure, they can complain to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.

A complaint to the Ombudsman should normally be made within 12 months of the problem that the person is complaining about.

It is for the Ombudsman to decide if a complaint should be investigated. If the Ombudsman does decide to investigate a complaint it will prepare a report to be sent to the complainant and children’s services. If the Ombudsman determines there has been a failing by children’s services it will set how it thinks children’s services should sort out the problem. The Ombudsman can recommend (but not order) children’s services to pay the complainant compensation.

Further information about complaining to the Ombudsman is available on its website at: Make a complaint.