This information should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice. Read the disclaimer.
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.
Important things to remember
Policing is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is a separate system for police governance (and therefore complaints) in Scotland and Northern Ireland. This article focuses on the situation in England and Wales but does reference relevant information for Scotland and Northern Ireland (highlighted in green). MPs (and those who work for them) can contact the Library’s request service [intranet link only] if they require further information.
A new police complaints system was introduced in England and Wales on 1 February 2020. Complaints lodged before 1 February 2020 are handled under the old system.
The police complaints system in England and Wales is based on a principle of ‘reasonable and proportionate’ decision making. Decision makers should consider what is reasonable and proportionate at every stage of the complaints process. They will consider several factors including the seriousness of the allegation, the potential for learning and the cost of taking the complaint forward. It is important to be realistic about what constituents can expect from making a complaint. What might happen as a result of a complaint is discussed in the article Police complaints: handling casework involving dissatisfaction with the police [“What can my constituent expect from making a complaint?”].
The police complaints system is complex. It involves specialist language and sometimes complicated procedures. This can make it hard to navigate. It is important to handle casework involving police complaints with care. The information on this page should help. MPs and their staff can contact the Library’s request service [intranet link only] for further assistance.
Who handles police complaints?
England and Wales
There are three key actors in the English and Welsh police complaints system: police forces, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs)/ Mayors and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).
Most complaints are handled by the relevant police force, but certain complaints must be referred to the IOPC.
The IOPC oversees the complaints system. It publishes statutory guidance to those working with police complaints and monitors their performance handling complaints. The IOPC conducts independent investigations of the most serious complaints. It also has powers to direct some of the complaint handling conducted by the other actors.
PCCs/ Mayors handle complaints concerning their chief officer and undertake complaint reviews under the current system. In some areas PCCs/Mayors have chosen to play a greater role in the complaints process.
Scotland and Northern Ireland
The police complaints system is similar in Scotland where most complaints are handled by Police Scotland and certain complaints are referred to the Police Investigations Review Commissioner (Pirc). In Northern Ireland all complaints are handled by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
Sources of information
All local force websites include information about police complaints that is supposed to be easy to access and understand.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC)
The IOPC website includes helpful and accessible information about police complaints for the public and a series of guides to the police complaint system designed to support those in policing. They also maintain statutory guidance on the police complaints system which provides detailed information.
Scotland and Northern Ireland
In Scotland the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (Pirc) provides a similar function to the IOPC. They maintain statutory guidance on the police complaints system in Scotland. The Scottish Government and Police Scotland have both provided accessible information on police complaints. Citizens Advice Scotland also maintains information about police complaints.
The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is a similar body to the IOPC but it handles all police complaints in Northern Ireland. Their website provides lots of information about police complaints. The Northern Ireland Executive maintains accessible information about police complaints on their nidirect website. The Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) also maintains information on police complaints.
Further Library resources
The Library has published more information on police complaints in England and Wales in the research briefing Police complaints and misconduct proceedings. This research briefing discusses the police complaints system and the wider framework for police accountability in England and Wales in detail. It also discusses a recent history of reform in this area.
The Library research briefing Policing in the UK describes the governance and operation of police services. It also discusses the performance of police forces in England and Wales.
The Commons Library does not intend the information in this article to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. We have published it to support the work of MPs. You should not rely upon it as legal or professional advice, or as a substitute for it. We do not accept any liability whatsoever for any errors, omissions or misstatements contained herein. You should consult a suitably qualified professional if you require specific advice or information. Read our briefing for information about sources of legal advice and help.