Complaints (against police) system: explained

The system of complaints against police officers in the UK is quite complicated one for a lay person and contains certain pitfalls for those unexperienced in it.

While the initial entry point – ability to file a complaint – is readily available on websites of any UK police force, the main problems are hidden in lack of understanding of what should happen next.

The complaints system is split into three main layers:

  1. Professional Standards Department (PSD) of a police force – the internal department which exists in every UK police force. It deals with 99% of complaints.
  2. The IOPC – Independent Office for Police Conduct – the overseeing body which deals with the remaining 1% most serious cases and also considers the appeals on the outcome of complaints made to PSD.
  3. The High Court – in case of failure of the IOPC to properly address a complaint or appeal by complainant against the decision of PSD, the judiciary system represents the last resort for challenging the results of the complaint.

It is important to understand that, while the complainant has no duty to describe his or her complaint in proper legal language and collect evidence, the outcome of complaint will often depend on the formulation of the complaint and the available evidence (or references to where it can be collected, e.g. video records which can be asked from a company operating premises in which the event happened, to be preserved). It is very likely that each next instance of appeal – first the IOPC and then the High Court, will deal only with what was before PSD.

Formulation of the complaint and clear indication of what standards of professional behaviour were breached, can also be of help in reaching result, by way of allowing the decision maker to clearly understand concern. However, making own analysis and representation of possible standards broken, one shall not limit the description by that and clearly indicate that other professional standards could be broken as well, so as to not give excuse that the complaint was misconceived, in case of wrongly chosen (to be highlighted in the complaint) standards.

Technical process

Many people think that the only way to file a complaint is to visit a police station and make offline representations. In fact, both complaints to PSD and subsequent appeals to the IOPC can be done via email. Availing yourself such an opportunity you can approach the evidence gathering and formulating the complaint exercises with due diligence and enough time as opposed to the case where a complaint is made through a police station.

This opportunity, however, should be used wisely, and result into quality rather than quantity: long, self-repeating texts are damaging perception of the matter of the complaint, because it is likely the person on the other side will have limited time to read and a temptation to conclude that the complaint is confused and emotional. As long as you use the opportunity wisely and as long as you have undertaken proper steps to gather evidence of wrongdoing or supplied PSD with the clear information where it can be gathered, you can make a powerful complaint even without legal help.

If you think that you have become a victim of misconduct, the first step which you should do is to file a comprehensive and efficient complaint.


The deadline for filing a complaint against a police officer is 12 months since the moment when the misconduct had place. However, complaints should not be delayed without a good reason because the longer time passes since the suspected misconduct, the more difficult will it be to investigate it.

What is even more critical and challenging, the deadline for an appeal against a decision o PSD to not uphold your complaint is 28 days from the moment when such a decision was made. If you have filed a complaint and do not expect a reasonable approach by PSD, this deadline should be kept into account.

Finally, the deadline for the appeal to the High Court against a decision of the IOPC – in the unfortunate case your appeal of the PSD’s decision was not upheld by the IOPC – is 3 months from the IOPC’s making such decision.

Civil claim vs Complaint

A clear difference should be understood between those two processes. Civil claim is a legal process of claiming damages by way of suing the police while complaints are instrument of instigating internal investigation and even gathering information from the police itself about the circumstances of the concerned conduct.

Neither of those options exclude each other but it is always wise to file a complaint and see outcome of it, before filing a civil claim, because a complaint may be more controlled environment resulting into obtaining some additional evidence / explanations from the officer concerned, which later could be used in a civil claim.

Most importantly, complaint is a simpler process not requiring much legal help.

Legal help

In many cases you will find it challenging (if possible at all) to get free legal help when filing a complaint or a civil claim. It is much more likely to get free legal help when filing a civil claim because it allows to claim legal expenses on a win-only basis and there are some lawyers who may take their clients’ cases on such a basis. Having reviewed available ones, AAAPPP recommends Iain Gould who, according to his blog, has significant experience in making financial claims against police.

AAAPPP is not associated in any way neither with Mr Gould nor with any other lawyer, and you may find it useful to get free help from AAAPPP if the complaint is your desired initial step.