Quality and Performance of Complaints Handling
Case Review Sample
93. During 2014, COPFS received 731 new complaints. We examined the response provided by RIU in 85 cases. Of these, we identified five cases that did not fall within the definition of a "complaint" and one that could not be assessed due to the absence of the reply on the system.
94. Of the remaining 79 cases assessed, 17 were dealt with by quick resolution and 62 by the formal complaints procedure. Annex B provides a detailed breakdown of the results of our review.
95. Chart 3 illustrates the source of the complaints. The largest number came from victims and witnesses or their representatives (44%) with accused persons or their representatives constituting the second largest category (32%).
96. Chart 4 provides a breakdown of complaints by business function. The largest number of complaints were about cases prosecuted in the summary courts (summary procedure) (47%). Complaints about case marking (Initial Case Processing) were the second largest category (19%).
97. Chart 5 demonstrates the formats used to make a complaint. Email was the main method used (44%) with written correspondence (33%) the second most common mechanism.
98. Almost half of the complaints were received by RIU (46%) with the remainder submitted to COPFS Enquiry Point (23%) or local offices, sheriff court, etc.
99. The most common recorded method of dealing with quick resolution complaints was email (44%) followed by letter (33%). All formal complaints were responded to in writing.
100. We reviewed the progress of the complaints against COPFS internal timescales and found:
- An acknowledgment was sent within 3 days in 79% of the complaints.
- "Quick resolution" complaints were concluded in 65% of the complaints within 5 working days, with 18% taking more than 20 days to conclude.
- In complaints dealt with by the formal procedure, only 68% were concluded within 20 working days, with 16% taking more than 30 days to complete.
101. We found evidence of delays in local offices referring complaints to RIU as well as in local offices providing information required by RIU in order to answer complaints. As reported, such delays impact on the ability of RIU to meet internal timescales.
A complaint was received in a local PF office on 03/02/14 but was not forwarded to RIU until 14/05/14. The response issued on 18/06/14, 99 working days after receipt in the local office.
102. Another area regularly falling below the organisational aspiration is keeping complainers informed of the progress of their complaint. In the 20 cases that exceeded 20 days, letters providing an update were only issued in 5 cases.
A complainer sent an email of complaint on 18/02/14. An automatic email acknowledgement was issued on the same day. On failing to receive a reply 20 days after the acknowledgment, the complainant sent a further email on 18/03/14 (28 working days later) querying the lack of response. This prompted an email reply on the same day apologising for the delay and explaining that the complaint was being actively investigated. A response was issued the following day.
Recommendations 6 and 7
RIU should provide feedback to the Operational Boards on the compliance of offices and Federations to provide information to RIU within internal timescales.
COPFS should strengthen procedures to ensure that complainants are provided with progress updates in line with COPFS complaints and feedback policy.
103. We found that in 81% of the complaints reviewed the records were accurate and complete. Examples of incomplete records included missing letters and a lack of details of action taken to progress the complaint by local offices.
104. The complaints and feedback policy is available in other languages, audio, large print, electronic or any other format. Text Relay and Language Line are also available.
105. RIU maintain a record of any equality issues arising from complaints and highlight such issues with the Equalities team in the Policy Division to inform improvement of COPFS approach to its equality duties. None of the complaints we reviewed required any special arrangements to meet the equality needs of complainants.
Nature of Complaint
106. Chart 6 provides a breakdown of the subject matter of the complaints reviewed.
107. The largest number of complaints related to decisions not to prosecute followed by failure to reply, and decisions to prosecute.
108. This is consistent with the data collated by RIU between January and March 2015, as illustrated in Chart 7, although 'handling of case in court' and 'other administrative failure' also scored highly in the RIU report.
109. The ability to provide an independent check with the authority to admit and apologise if a decision is erroneous, and in some cases reverse the outcome, is critical to an effective complaints system.
110. 32% of the complaints examined related to a prosecutorial decision. In all of these cases, we found evidence that the criminal case had been reviewed independently by RIU. This involved considering the police report and statements afresh and in some cases seeking additional information. In one case, RIU referred it back to the local Procurator Fiscal's office for the decision to be reviewed.
111. Of the 77 complaints assessed, 75% were not upheld, 16% were partially or fully upheld and 9% were withdrawn as shown in Chart 8.
Overall Quality of Responses
112. The standard of response from RIU was scored as excellent in 47% of the complaints reviewed. 33% were assessed as good, 16% as fair and 4% were considered poor.
113. There were a number of commonly occurring features in responses deemed to be excellent. They were easy to understand, addressed all issues in a sensitive and empathetic manner, were open, not defensive and tailored to the individual. The following is an example where the reply featured all of the attributes associated with excellent complaints handling.
On receipt of a complaint about the attitude of a member of staff who answered a call from a person seeking an update on the progress of the investigation into a death of a relative, RIU, after listening to a recording of the call, upheld the complaint. The reply acknowledged that the call was poorly dealt with and apologised for the lack of communication which had led to the relative having to contact COPFS to receive an update on the progress of the investigation. The response was empathetic and highlighted areas where the member of staff had failed to meet the standard of service expected by COPFS and concluded by advising that training had been provided to address these failings.
114. Features that detracted from complaints being assessed as excellent were the use of jargon, a lack of empathy/inappropriate tone, failure to address all issues raised and to respond within the published timescales. The following two examples were assessed as good and fair respectively.
The complainant sought an explanation for her elderly husband having been arrested, on the instruction of COPFS, kept in cells overnight, without being advised why he was being detained and then subsequently released. While all the issues raised were addressed and the reply was empathetic and timeous, it included phrases such as "appear from custody", "libelled a charge" "liberated on an undertaking" and "the undertaking appearance was cancelled" without explanation.
A victim concerned about what was perceived to be an inadequate sentence received a timeous reply advising that sentencing was a matter for the Sheriff. It acknowledged that COPFS could appeal against unduly lenient sentences, however, in explaining why COPFS did not intend to appeal the sentence, the reply used overly formal and jargonistic terminology including phrases such as "prosecuted under solemn proceedings", "petition warrant", "remand in custody pending trial", "full committal", "served with an indictment" "first diet", "mitigation" and "pleas tendered".
115. Common elements of responses rated as poor were vagueness, failure to address all issues raised, a lack of empathy and reassurance, dismissive, significant delays, and not informed of the right to appeal. The following is an example of a reply assessed as poor.
A witness wrote complaining that the police had come to her home and left a calling card six months after she had provided a statement and two weeks before the trial. She queried why the police were looking to speak with her. The response was abrupt and lacked empathy. While, it advised that it was not unusual for the police to seek additional information, it proceeded to state that COPFS could not provide any further comment as the case was ongoing, without providing any further explanation. Overall, the response failed to provide advice and reassurance and was confused and unsatisfactory.
In contrast the same witness received a letter from the Scottish Government. The reply advised the witness to contact the police who would be able to explain why they needed to get in touch and reassured the complainant that it was not unusual for police or COPFS to have to contact witnesses prior to a trial commencing. A telephone number for COPFS and the website address and contact numbers for Victim Support Scotland (VSS) were provided with a suggestion that the witness may wish to contact VSS as they offer free practical and emotional advice.
116. In 79% of complaints examined, the reply was tailored to the complainants' level of understanding as far as could be ascertained and avoided the use of legal jargon. We found 17 cases that used legal terminology or jargon without any explanation. Some common examples are:
RIU should provide responses in plain English and, in particular, should avoid using legal and procedural jargon without adequate explanation.
117. In 92% of complaints examined, all of the issues raised by complainers were addressed. This is aided by the practice of RIU of setting out the issues raised by the complainant at the beginning of the reply. Where there are a number of issues complained of, this can appear cumbersome. In such cases, the practice adopted in some replies of setting out the issues in an Annex, was easier to follow.
118. We found that the response could have been more empathetic and tailored to the individual in 20% of replies. This was evidenced by being overly defensive, not offering an apology, using standard formulaic paragraphs and failing to provide reassurance.
119. 32% of the complaints reviewed involved other criminal justice organisations. There was consultation with the other organisation in 7 of those cases (28%).
120. Complainers were informed of the right to appeal to the Ombudsman in all but 3 of the 62 formal complaints.
121. There was a reference to the complaint prompting a change of practice or procedure in only 4 of the 79 complaints reviewed. These referred to ongoing reviews of the service provided by Victim Information and Advice, mail handling and a revised process to ensure that any correspondence requesting compensation was appropriately highlighted to the prosecutor dealing with the case.
122. Overall, we found that the complaints handling staff in RIU were helpful and skilled, and that there was a genuine willingness and commitment from the Head of Policy, managers and staff in RIU to improve the complaints handling process. In the majority of cases examined efforts had been made to respond in full to all issues raised and where there was fault or poor service on behalf of COPFS, it was acknowledged, often with an apology.
123. A lack of understanding and knowledge of the role of the prosecution and the criminal justice system was evident in many of the complaints, particularly in relation to court processes, indicating that there is value for COPFS in providing more information on its website on the roles and responsibilities of the various organisations in the criminal justice system. Incorporating a reference in the policy to the new Standards of Service, which include flowcharts setting out what can be expected from various criminal justice organisations at each stage of the process, may go some way to address misconceptions.
124. As noted, there were few cases where the response referred to a change of practice or policy to tackle the cause of the complaint, from which it may be implied that the intelligence provided by complaints is not being utilised to improve the service provided by COPFS. Using complaints as a vehicle to identify service issues and inform and stimulate organisational improvements is discussed in more detail below.