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23 Alternatives to court

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1. Introduction

2. What alternatives are there to court?

3. Do I need a lawyer to use alternative dispute resolution?

4. How do I decide whether to use an alternative dispute resolution scheme?

5. How do alternative dispute resolution schemes work?

6. Mediation and conciliation

7. Adjudication and arbitration

8. Grievance and complaints procedure

9. Litigation

10. Negotiation

11. Ombudsmen

Ombudsmen are independent 'referees' who look at complaints about public and private organisations. They are often a last resort when complaints cannot be sorted out through an organisation's own complaints procedure. Ombudsman services:

  • are free to use;
  • will normally consider your complaint only after you have used the complaints procedure of the organisation you have a problem with;
  • don't take sides; and
  • make decisions that are not binding on you, so you are free to go to court or use another dispute resolution process if you are not happy with their decision. (Except for the Pensions Ombudsman, whose decisions are binding on both you and the company).

Ombudsmen who belong to the British and Irish Ombudsman Association (BIOA) are independent from the organisations they investigate.

In most cases, the ombudsmen dealing with public organisations (such as local authorities or government departments) can only review how a decision was made and say whether:

  • there was 'maladministration' in the way it was made; and
  • it resulted in an injustice.

They don't look at whether or not the decision itself was right. Maladministration can include:

  • an organisation or department not following its own policies or procedures;
  • rudeness;
  • taking too long to do something;
  • not doing something they should have;
  • treating you less fairly than other people; and
  • giving you wrong or misleading information.

The private-sector ombudsmen (who look at complaints about banks and insurance companies, for example) can generally look at whether a decision was fair and reasonable based on industry standards of good practice. They can also award you compensation if they agree with your complaint.

Ombudsman for problems with goods and services

There are ombudsmen schemes for a range of different consumer complaints, including complaints about:

  • estate agents;
  • financial services (banks, investments and insurance, for example);
  • pensions; and
  • telephone services.

If a company you have a problem with is a member of an ombudsman scheme, it should make this clear, for example in a brochure or on its letterhead. If you are not sure, ask the company or contact the British and Irish Ombudsman Association (BIOA).

Ombudsman for problems with solicitors

If you make a complaint to a solicitor and you are not happy with the way they deal with it, you can complain to the Legal Complaints Service (LCS). If you are unhappy with how the LCS has handled your complaint, you can then go to the Legal Services Ombudsman.

Ombudsman for problems with medical treatment

If you have a complaint about treatment you've received from the NHS, you can take your case to the Health Service Ombudsman. However, the ombudsman will only look at your case if you have already been through the NHS complaints procedure and you are not happy with the result.

The Health Service Ombudsman can consider various complaints, including those about:

  • poor-quality care or treatment;
  • poor service;
  • not giving you a service that you should have had;
  • a delay in your care or treatment;
  • rudeness; and
  • the way a hospital or health authority dealt with your complaint.

Ombudsman for problems with housing

The Housing Ombudsman Service deals with complaints from people whose have a 'registered social landlord'. These are normally housing associations, but may also be landlords who manage homes that used to be run by local councils. Some private landlords are also members of the Housing Ombudsman scheme. The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) deals with complaints from tenants in local authority housing.

Ombudsman for problems with local authorities (councils)

If you have a complaint about a local authority (council) you should contact the Local Government Ombudsman.

They will look at complaints about about most services provided by your local authority including:

  • council housing transfers, allocations and repairs;
  • problems with your child's education (for example, not being given a place at a school; being excluded; or being assessed for special educational needs);
  • social services;
  • Housing Benefit;
  • Council Tax; and
  • planning.

Ombudsman for problems with government departments

If you have a complaint about a government department, you can take it to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. If your complaint is about the National Assembly for Wales or some public organisations concerned with Welsh issues, you can take it to the Public Sercvies Ombudsman for Wales. The Parliamentary Ombudsman will look at a range of complaints, including those about:

  • the Benefits Agency or Jobcentre Plus;
  • HM Revenue and Customs; and
  • the courts (but not about judges or their decisions).

You can find out which government departments and public bodies are covered at the website http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/.

If you want to take your complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, you must first send it to a member of parliament (MP). They will pass it on to the ombudsman. In Wales, you can complain directly to the Public Sercvies Ombudsman for Wales.

Ombudsman for problems with the Child Support Agency

If you have a complaint about the Child Support Agency, you can take it to the Independent Case Examiner (ICE). If you are unhappy with the result of the ICE's investigation, you can complain to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Ombudsman for complaints about the use of information

The Information Commissioner's Office can deal with complaints about:

  • the way your personal information is used by an organisation (for example, if you believe it has passed on your details without your permission); or
  • the way a public body (a government department, for example) has responded to a freedom-of-information request.

Complaints about gas, electricity, water and telephone companies

Regulators oversee the way gas, electricity, water and telephone companies behave. The three main regulators in England and Wales are:

  • Ofgem, for gas and electricity companies;
  • Ofwat, for water companies; and
  • Ofcom for telephone and internet service providers.

However, regulators do not normally deal with individual consumer complaints. If you have a complaint about a gas, electricity, water or telephone company, you should first complain to the company direct. If you are not satisfied with the way the company has dealt with your complaint, you can take it to one of the independent consumer complaints bodies:

  • For a gas or electricity company, contact Energywatch.
  • For a water company, contact the Consumer Council for Water.
  • For a phone or internet service provider, there are two complaints bodies: CISAS (the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme) and Otelo (the Office of the Telecommunications Ombudsman). You should contact the one your phone company or internet service provider is a member of.

See 'Complaints about utilities providers' for details of how to contact them.

12. How much does alternative dispute resolution cost?

13. Dispute resolution services

14. Further help

15. About this leaflet

This leaflet is published by the Gurkha Free Legal Advice (LSC). It was written in association with the Advice Services Alliance.

Leaflet Version: November 2007

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