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You have the right to make a complaint about any aspect of NHS treatment. You can do this by using the NHS complaints procedure. Anyone who is receiving, or has received, NHS treatment or services can complain. If you are unable to complain yourself then someone else – for example, a relative or close friend – can complain for you.

The first step in the complaints procedure is to contact the organisation you are unhappy with – for example, a hospital, GP or dentist – to try to resolve your complaint.

If you are in Scotland, the complaints procedure for the NHS is similar, i.e. you should start by complaining to the hospital and GP. Your complaint should be raised within six months as in England and Wales. See NHS24 for more information.

In Northern Ireland, the complaints procedure for the NHS is similar, i.e. you should start by complaining to the hospital and GP. For more information see: HSC

NHS complaint procedures

If you are unhappy with the treatment or service you have received from the NHS, you are entitled to make a complaint, have it considered, and receive a response from the NHS organisation or primary care practitioner concerned.

The NHS complaints procedure described below covers complaints made by a person about any matter connected with the provision of NHS services by NHS organisations or primary care practitioners in England (for instance doctors, dentists, opticians and pharmacists). The procedure also covers services provided overseas or by the independent sector where the NHS has paid for them. There may be different arrangements in place for the internal handling of complaints in Foundation Trusts.

Who can complain?

A complaint can be made by a patient or person affected, or likely to be affected, by the actions or decisions of a NHS organisation or primary care practitioner. A complaint can also be made by someone acting on behalf of the patient or person, with their consent.

What is the time limit for making a complaint?

You should normally complain within 12 months (6 months in Northern Ireland) of the event(s) concerned or within 12 months (6 months in Northern Ireland) of becoming aware that you have something to complain about. Primary care practitioners and complaints managers in NHS organisations have discretion to waive this time limit if there are good reasons why you could not complain earlier.

To whom should I complain initially?

The first stage of the NHS complaints procedure is 'Local Resolution'. Your complaint should be made in the first instance to the organisation or primary care practitioner providing the service. Local Resolution aims to resolve complaints quickly and as close to the source of the complaint as possible using the most appropriate means, for example, use of conciliation.

You can raise your concerns immediately by speaking to a member of staff (e.g. doctor, nurse, dentist, GP or practice manager). Another useful first step is to talk to the local Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) or the Patient and Client Council (PCC) in Northern Ireland which has been established in every NHS Trust and Primary Care Trust (PCT).

PALS and PCC are not part of the complaints procedure itself, but they may be able to resolve your concerns quickly and informally, or if not, they will tell you more about the NHS complaints procedure and the Independent Complaints Advocacy Services (ICAS) - a free, independent and confidential service which can help you make a complaint about your local NHS.

Your complaint will then be referred to the complaints manager of the organisation concerned who will deal with the complaint and can arrange for an independent conciliator or mediator to be brought in to help resolve the complaint.

What if I'm still unhappy after Local Resolution?

If you are unhappy with the decision of the complaints manager at the organisation concerned, you do not have a right of appeal. However, in England and Wales, you can refer the matter the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) which is independent of the NHS and the government. In Scotland, you should contact the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, in Wales, the Public Services Ombudsman and, in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Ombudsman.

What happens to the complaint after being referred to an Ombudsman?

The Ombudsman will investigate the complaint and write a report, giving the results of the investigation. This report is sent both to the relevant government department or health authority and to the person who made the complaint.

If the Ombudsman agrees that the complaint is justified and that you have suffered injustice or hardship, the report will set out what the Ombudsman has decided should be done about it.

The Ombudsman can ask for:

  • An apology
  • Financial compensation or repayment of money due, for example, tax or benefits
  • Better facilities for patients
  • Better administrative procedures
  • Better instructions for staff
There is no appeal against the Ombudsman's decision. The Ombudsman will only start a new investigation into a complaint if completely new information is received which could not reasonably have been known about before. It is very rare for a new investigation to be started. However, in certain circumstances, you may be able to have their decision judicially reviewed, a procedure which allows a court to review the decisions of public bodies, though there are strict criteria that you must meet and this could be very costly. You can find out more about this process at www.publiclawproject.org.uk.

The Ombudsman's recommendations cannot be legally enforced.

Access to medical records

The Access to Health Records Act 1990 as amended and Access to Health Records (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 as amended allow any patient to see their paper medical records unless seeing their medical records could cause them harm. The Data Protection Act 1998 extends the right of access to all information held on computers as well as manual records. Everyone has the right to access personal data held about themselves in either computerised or manual form, whenever the record was made. This includes NHS medical records and private records made by doctors and other health professionals.

You are also entitled to copies. If you wish to have copies, you must pay the reasonable costs of copying plus the cost of sending any copies to you. You do not have to pay any other administration fees involved in accessing your medical records.

You have the right to have any part of the records that you do not understand explained by the relevant health professional on written request. You should not be charged for the explanation.

Under the Data Protection Act 1998 'Subject Access', if you want a copy of the information in your records there may be a charge per copy up to a maximum of £50 if the records are partly manual and partly on computer or £10 if they are wholly on computer.

Further advice and help

If you would like any further advice or help, contact the following organisations.

NHS Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) (England and Wales only)

Your GP or local hospital can refer you to PALS or you can contact NHS Direct on 0845 4647.

Patient and Client Council (PCC) (Northern Ireland only)

The PCC was set up to do the following:

  • To represent the interests of the public by giving the public's view on services and engaging with Health and Social Care (HSC) organisations to ensure that the needs and expectations of the public are addressed in the planning, commissioning and delivery of health and social care services
  • To promote the involvement of patients, clients, carers and the public in the design, planning, commissioning and delivery of health and social care
  • To provide assistance to individuals making, or intending to make, a complaint relating to health and social care
You can contact the PCC on their freephone 0800 917 0222

The Independent Complaints Advocacy Service

(ICAS) provides advice and support to people who want to complain about the NHS. To contact ICAS, call NHS Direct on 0845 4647 or your local Citizens Advice Bureau

If you have a question in Scotland, NHS 24 can be reached on 08454 24 24 24.

Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman

If you remain unhappy after local resolution and independent review then you can complain to the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is completely independent of the NHS and the government.

Northern Ireland Ombudsman

If you remain unhappy after local resolution and independent review then you can complain to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is completely independent of the NHS and the government.