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A short guide on how to raise a Service Complaint

What is a service complaint?

In the civilian workplace, when an employee has a complaint or grievance at work there will be a procedure in place to deal with the grievance.  The military has an equivalent procedure called the ‘Service Complaints’ procedure.  A Service Complaint is an internal workplace grievance procedure for all serving and former members of the Armed Forces who feel they have been wronged at some point during their service.  The system is designed to provide service personnel with a process that is fair and efficient and through which they can seek a remedy for their grievance.  We typically see Service Complaints including bullying, harassment, discrimination and career fouling.  The recent Service Complaints Ombudsmen Annual Report of 2019 reported that female personnel are overrepresented in the Service Complaints system with women making up 23% of complaints compared to their representation in the Armed Forces being just 12%.  39% of all Service Complaints made by female personnel concerned bullying, harassment or discrimination.  This is compared to only 21% of all Service Complaints made by male personnel concerning the same issues and highlights the disparity of men and women’s experience in the Armed Forces.

How to raise a Service Complaint:

Guidance for the service complaint system is set out in detail in the Joint Service Publication 831.  JSP 831 provides important information about what should be included in a service complaint, time limits and the rights of service personnel who make or are subject to a service complaint. I have summarised the key steps and rules below:

A Service Complaint will involve a Complainant (the person who has raised the complaint) and a Respondent (the person who is the subject of the Service Complaint).

  • Before raising a Service Complaint, individuals are encouraged to try to resolve the dispute informally.  This process is often a much quicker and easier process than raising a service complaint.
  • If an informal resolution is not possible, service personnel may raise a formal Service Complaint by completing a written statement of complaint to a Specified Officer.  This is done through an ‘Annex F’ form.  The Specified Officer will be your Commanding Officer.  If they are involved in the issue you are complaining about, the Specified Officer becomes their immediate superior.  If they are also involved, someone else will be nominated to be the Specified Officer.  In this written statement, the complainant will need to state what remedy they are seeking.  There is no restriction on what they may request but a few examples include financial compensation, administrative action against the respondent, reinstatement or promotion, or an apology.
  • Service leavers are also able to raise a complaint by completing the ‘Annex F’ form and submitting to the Commanding Officer of their last unit.
  • If the complaint is accepted as a matter which needs to be investigated, it will then be referred to the Defence Council which appoints a Decision Body.  It is important to note that once the Specified Officer has determined the complaint as requiring investigation, you will be unable to add any further matters or allegations to the complaint at a later date.  The Decision Body can appoint an Investigating Officer who will investigate the complaints, interview the complainant and respondent and any witnesses.  They will also gather any evidence and report to the Decision Body.
  • The Decision Body will then make a decision on the Service Complaint.  The basis for the decision will be set out in writing to the complainant and they will also advise on the right to appeal.
  • If you are dissatisfied with the decision of the Decision Body, you may submit an appeal.  This must be submitted within 6 weeks of the decision and the process of the appeal largely follows that of the original Service Complaint.  If the Defence Council decides the appeal is not valid, you also have the option to apply to the Service Complaints Ombudsmen for review of that decision.  The current Service Complaints Ombudsmen is Mariette Hughes.

What can’t you make a Service Complaint about?

There are limits to what can be the subject of a Service Complaint.  If you have been the victim of a criminal act such as an assault, this will need to be reported to the appropriate civilian or military authorities and will be dealt with by the criminal justice system.  In addition, there are some issues that need to go through a separate complaints process before that can form the basis of a Service Complaint.  These are known as ‘Special to Type’ or STT.  STT issues include housing complaints and issues regarding pay and allowances.  JSP 831 provides detailed guidance about what can and can’t be the subject of a Service Complaint and provides a comprehensive list of excluded matters.

Time limits

A complaint must normally be made within 3 months of the incident you are complaining about.  Where the matter complained of happened over a period of time, the complaint must be made within 3 months of the latest incident.  If you are out of time, you can still make the complaint to the Specified Officer giving reasons as to why it is being made out of time.  If you have a good reason, it should still be investigated.

How long will it take to resolve my complaint?

Pursuing a Service Complaint can be a very lengthy process.  The Service Complaints Ombudsmen aims to resolve 90% of complaints within a 24 week period however we often see delays in the process especially in cases where there is an appeal or an application to the SCOAF.  In reality, you could be waiting up to a year (or possibly longer) for the process to conclude.

Can I remain anonymous?

Service personnel can often be hesitant in raising a Service Complaint as they are worried about what the repercussions may be, especially if they are still serving.  It is important to note that anonymous Service Complaints will not be accepted and will not be investigated.  This is because Service Complaints can only be made by a member or former member of the Armed Forces who was subject to Service law at the time of the alleged complaint.

The Service Complaints process makes it clear that no one must be treated unfavourably as a result of making a complaint.  If you feel that you have been treated unfairly as a result then that in itself can be the basis of raising a separate complaint.

If you are raising a Service Complaint, you may also have a civil claim where your career has been impacted.  A few examples of Service Complaints which may result in civil claims include those involving bullying and harassment, discrimination, personal injury or mismanagement.  There are strict time limits for bringing civil claims so if you think you may have a claim you should seek advice from Bolt Burdon Kemp as soon as possible.  If you wait until the service complaint process has concluded, you may find that you are out of time to bring a civil claim.

If you need any further information or guidance on how to make a Service Complaint please see JSP 831 or the Service Complaints Ombudsman’s website.

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