This Briefing Paper gives basic factual information about the police complaints system in England and Wales to assist with constituents’ questions. It also gives brief information on the systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland, mainly for comparative purposes.

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England and Wales

Major reforms to the police complaints system in England and Wales are being brought in over the next year under the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The first major change was that, from 8 January 2018, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) became the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), with a new governance structure.

The current system

The system is complex, and so is the legislation governing it. In brief:

  • The public can make complaints in a variety of ways
  • Others (including MPs) can complain on their behalf, but the legislation says that written consent is necessary
  • Police forces deal with the vast majority of complaints themselves; forces finalised over 60,000 allegations in 2016/17
  • By contrast, the IOPC will investigate only a few hundred complaints itself
  • These independent IOPC investigations are for the most serious and sensitive matters
  • Forces deal with a substantial proportion of allegations (42% in 2016-17) by “local resolution” – an informal procedure which might, for example, result in an explanation or apology
  • Forces deal with a similar proportion of allegations (44% in 2016-17) through investigation
  • Some of the more serious complaints may be investigated by a different force
  • The IOPC may supervise or manage the investigations which forces carry out, although this is an area which will change under the 2017 Act
  • Some serious “conduct matters” can be investigated even if there hasn’t been a complaint
  • In addition to complaints, the IOPC will also investigate deaths and serious injuries linked to police contact
  • The IPCC used to hear all appeals. Since 2012, this task has been split with chief officers, who now hear roughly half of all appeals. The IOPC hears the more serious and sensitive ones. It also hears appeals against decisions not to record a complaint.
  • If a complainant disagrees with the outcome of their appeal, there is no further appeal under the system. This applies whether a chief officer or the IOPC heard the appeal; their decision is final. If a complainant remained unsatisfied and wanted to pursue the matter, they would have to seek redress through judicial review, and would need legal advice.

Reforms to the system

The Policing and Crime Act 2017 will make major changes to the system when the relevant sections come into force. These include:

  • Allowing Police and Crime Commissioners to take on a greater role in the police complaints system, choosing between three different models
  • Introducing a system of “super-complaints” so that certain organisations such as charities or advocacy could complain about trends or patterns in policing


In Scotland, if a complainant is unhappy with the response offered by the police to a non-criminal complaint, they can refer it to the Police Investigations and Review Commission who may then carry out a review of the way in which it was handled. The PIRC can direct that the complaint must be reconsidered.

The PIRC can also investigate the most serious incidents independently.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the independent Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland investigates all complaints against the police. The creation of the Ombudsman was a key part of the Northern Ireland peace process, following criticisms of the previous system.


  • Commons Research Briefing SN02056
  • Author: Pat Strickland
  • Topics: Police

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