The Department require associations to have in place a complaints process.
Registered Housing Associations should, at all times, strive to provide its tenants, housing applicants and others with a high standard of service. However, it is recognised that, on occasions, tenants and others are not satisfied with the service given and, as a result, wish to make a complaint. Complaints can inform Associations of any deficiencies in its service to its tenants and others and provide opportunities for improving customer care and quality of service delivery.
The NI Ombudsman has suggested that a complaint can be defined as: “Any oral or written expression of dissatisfaction by any person, however made, about the service, actions or inactions of a body or its officers which requires a response.” Associations must also recognise the fact that a tenant does not have to use the word ‘complaint’ when raising a matter of concern but it will still require to be treated as such. There are also occasions when it can be difficult to determine whether a tenant wishes to have their problem deemed as a complaint and it will, therefore, be for the Association to clarify this at the outset. A complaints procedure should be readily accessible and also clearly state who can complain and the circumstances where a complaint will be accepted on behalf of another person. It should also explain those issues which are not considered to be a complaint.
Complaints can be accepted verbally but it is preferable to receive them in writing. However, any complaint made verbally must be recorded in writing by staff and verified by the complainant. It is also important that as much information as possible is gathered at the beginning of the investigation process. The Model Complaint Form, is recommended as best practice for use by tenants and customers of a housing association. If an Association decides not to use this form then it must ensure that all elements of the model form are incorporated into its preferred method of collecting information.
Complaints received from an anonymous source may be dealt with where the issue is deemed to be one which identifies systemic issues of concern.
Associations need to have in place a formal procedure for dealing with complaints and all tenants and customers must be made aware of this procedure. It is also preferable that, for the benefit of the complainant, there should be a single point of contact.
The NI Ombudsman considers, as good practice, that internal procedures for dealing with complaints should be limited to two or, at most, a three stage process with the final stage being undertaken by the Chief Executive or head of the body concerned. This procedure should also state that where a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the investigation they can then take their complaint to the NI Ombudsman. However, the Ombudsman will normally expect that a complainant has exhausted the Association’s complaints procedure prior to this.
Each stage of the investigation process must have clear targets for responding, including acknowledgement of receipt of complaint, with the overall target being no more than 20 working days from date of receipt to provide a substantive response or resolution. Tenants will also be made aware of these target times in the information they receive on the complaints procedure. Complainants must be kept informed of progress throughout the investigation process. Where it becomes clear that the 20 working day target cannot be met complainants must be advised of the reasons for the delay and given an anticipated date for resolution.
In the NI Ombudsman office publication “Rights, Responsibilities and Redress - a Framework for Effective Complaint Handling” it cites the following principles as being at the core of the Framework for effective complaint handling:
- accessible and simple
- fair and impartial
- timely, effective and consistent
- delivers continuous improvement
The aforementioned model Complaints Form could also include, on front cover, a brief outline of the Association’s internal complaints procedure by way of an aide-memoire for the complainant.
Recording of Complaints
All documentation relating to a complaint, which should include notes of any verbal communication, must be kept on a separate file for each individual complaint.
Associations must maintain a register of all complaints received which records the progress of a complaint at each stage in the process including length of time taken and the date of resolution. However, Associations must also respect the privacy of an individual and it is important, therefore, that staff who deal with complaints receive appropriate training in Data Protection law and are aware of their obligations to the public in respect of their information.
Monitoring and Reporting of Complaints
Associations must have in place procedures for monitoring complaints received as this information can prove invaluable in the early identification of any trends or systemic flaws in service delivery as well as informing about length of time taken to resolve complaints. The Board of Management should receive regular reports of such information.
Reference to the NI Ombudsman office publication “Rights, Responsibilities and Redress – A Framework for Effective Complaint Handling” has been used throughout this guidance.