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Chapter 10 Section C: How to effectively make a formal complaint

This section discusses how to make an effective formal complaint.

The section explains whether you should first raise your issue directly with the organisation you are complaining or go to the appropriate independent complaints body without having done so. This section also discusses whether the complaint should be made in writing.

There is also a page with links to other documents about effective complaints and letter-writing.

10C.1: Who to complain to and should the complaint be in writing

When you decide you are going to make a complaint you have several decisions to make at the start of the process:

10C.1.1: Speaking directly to the person or organisation before making a separate complaint

You should consider first making a complaint to the organisation or person that the complaint is about. Sometimes, this can be the quickest and easiest way to address your concerns or fix a problem.

If you contact the person or organisation directly over the phone, try to make a short note of your conversations with the organisation or person. For example, you could make a note of when you had the conversation and what each person said.

If you have made a complaint to the organisation or person, give them time to respond before making this complaint to an independent organisation such as the Health Care Complaints Commission. If they have responded and you are not satisfied, you could include their response in your complaint to the complaints body.

Most large organisations, both public and private, have policies about how to respond when consumers complain and they have specific complaints sections that can help you.

There are advantages in complaining to the organisation or body you are complaining about first:

  • If your concerns are urgent, your concerns are more likely to be resolved quickly.
  • Even if your concerns are not urgent, you might receive a quicker resolution to your complaint. For example, you might receive an apology and you might decide that that is a the outcome that satisfies you.
  • You will probably have access to the other party’s version of events and gain more information about what happened. This can be used if you decide to take the complaint further to an external complaint handing body.
  • If you prefer to make your complaint verbally, they are less likely to insist on a written complaint than an external complaint body.

Some of the complaint bodies require that you to try to resolve the complaint directly with the organisation or person you are complaining about before they are prepared to become involved. This will sometimes depend upon the seriousness and nature of your complaint (for example, if your complaint is about bullying from a community mental health team that you are afraid of, you should not be expected to try to and resolve your complaint with the person who is or has bullied you).

If you would like advice on how to approach these conversations a health service or health practitioner, you could contact a Health Care Complaints Commission Inquiries Officer on (02) 9219 7444 or 1800 043 159*, 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday.

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

10C.1.2: Should you put your complaint in writing?

Many organisations, like the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC), will only accept written complaints. Many complaints organisations now have online complaint forms and there is no need for you to write a separate complaint letter. However, if you have difficultly writing a letter for whatever reason, you can speak to them and ask them to refer you to a staff member who can assist you write the letter.

Even if an organisation does accept verbal complaints, it is still generally preferable to put your complaints, concerns or questions in writing for the following reasons:

  • It is much harder for the organisation you are complaining about to ignore a written complaint. If they do ignore the complaint, this may be evidence of unreasonable conduct that you can include in your complaint to an external complaint handing body, if you decide to take the matter further. Sometimes it is harder to prove that you made a verbal complaint which was ignored. As time passes, it can be more difficult to remember exactly what was said at the time of the complaint and remain accurate about the details.
  • Although the body accepting the verbal complaint might record what you say to them, you will not have any record, except your memory of the details of your complaint. When you receive a response, it will be more difficult to check whether all aspects of your complaint/s and that all of your questions have been responded to.
  • If you make your complaint verbally, you are less likely to receive a written response in reply. This means you will have less information to pass on to a formal complaints body if you decide to take your complaint further.
  • Putting a complaint in writing means you are less likely to overlook something when you are making your complaint.
  • Putting your complaint in writing makes it easier for someone dealing with your complaint to understand your concerns and what you want done about them. If you ask questions, and they are put in writing, then your questions are less likely to be misunderstood and you are more likely to receive answers that deal the substance of the question.

However, if you feel more comfortable talking to someone rather than writing it down, then you may still receive the answers or an explanation that satisfies you, an apology that you want or systemic change in the organisation to make sure the same mistake is not repeated simply from a telephone call or face to face meeting. In other words, a verbal complaint is far more likely to lead to a satisfactory outcome than the third option, which is doing nothing at all.

If you have difficulty in writing a written complaint, because you have a disability, or of your English language skills, your level of written English or that you find the stress of the situation overwhelming to deal with on your own, then an advocacy organisation might be able to help you.

10C.2: More complaint and letter writing tips

When you are making a written complaint, make sure that you have provided enough information so that the person or organisation you are complaining to can understand your concerns and has all the information in order to respond properly.

For example, you should include information about:

  • your name and contact details;
  • what happened and when it happened;
  • details of when events took place and who was involved (including details of any witnesses);
  • whether you have already taken action to try to resolve your complaint;
  • what kind of outcome you want; and
  • any supporting evidence (i.e. try to attach copies of relevant letters, photos or other documents).

Effective complaint letters do not have to long. It is more important that you include all the important information. You can use dot points and subheadings in your letter.

Often people are complaining about treatment or a situation that upset them. However, complaint letters that are clear, logical and using plain language are more likely to be effective than letters that include swear words or strong language, or that provide other historical information unrelated to the particular complaint.

It is a good idea to check your letter for spelling and grammatical mistakes before sending it. You could ask a non-legal advocate to assist you in writing or checking your letter. For more information for how to find a non-legal advocate, click here.

Always keep a copy of the letter that you are sending for your own records.

The NSW Ombudsman has a fact sheet on tips for effective complaints, click here to read.

The HCCC has an information sheet about effective health care complaints, click here to read.

The Complaint Line also has tips for complaining and getting a result, click here for more information.

Updated January 1, 2021