The purpose of the Housing Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code is to enable landlords to resolve complaints raised by their residents quickly and to use the learning from complaints to drive service improvements.
Landlords must comply with some elements of the Code; however, we recognise that each landlord will need to adapt its complaints policy and processes to meet the needs of its residents. Consequently, there are many areas of the Code where a landlord can use its discretion. The Code seeks to be prescriptive only where we believe clear and consistent practice by all landlords is essential.
It is for landlords to assess the service that they provide to their residents and how this meets the Complaint Handling Code. Where there are discrepancies, or a landlord has used its discretion, an explanation should be included when completing the self-assessment form.
The FAQs below should assist landlords when applying the Code and assessing their service provision.
The full FAQs document is also available to download.
Definition of a complaint
Is the definition of a complaint set out in the Code mandatory?
The Code promotes the use of the following definition:
A complaint shall be defined as: ‘an expression of dissatisfaction, however made, about the standard of service, actions or lack of action by the organisation, its own staff, or those acting on its behalf, affecting an individual resident or group of residents’.
The aim of a universal complaint definition it to enable residents to be heard and understood and to ensure consistency of understanding and approach across the sector. If a landlord believes that they have a valid reason for adopting a different definition this should be explained in their self-assessment. Any definition that restricts access or excludes complaints without good reason is likely to be found non-compliant with the Complaint Handling Code.
If a resident verbally expresses dissatisfaction with the landlord’s service provision must this be logged as a complaint?
A landlord is encouraged to resolve disputes at the earliest possible moment. The landlord may therefore be able to resolve the issue for the resident without it becoming a formal complaint. However, it the resident remains dissatisfied or makes it clear that they wish to complain, then the matter should be logged as a complaint. This part of the Code highlights that where a resident does not explicitly use the word complaint, this should not necessarily prevent a landlord from identifying it as such.
What is an acceptable exclusion?
One of the aims of the Code is to promote access to the complaints procedure. To this end, the Code requires landlords to be clear about the circumstances in which complaints (or parts of a complaint) will not be accepted. This is for a landlord to decide and most landlords have this information detailed in their existing policies already, with common examples being:
- The issue is, or has been, subject to legal proceedings
- Liability issue that is subject to an insurance claim (although any other elements of the complaint should still be considered through the complaints procedure). More information can be found on our website.
- The complaint has not been raised within a reasonable time frame
- The complaint has been considered already
- The complaint is being pursued in an unreasonable manner
Any exclusions should be kept to a minimum and should be clearly identified and explained in the complaints policy.
How should complaints about the actions of third parties be handled?
Where a landlord has delegated part of its landlord responsibility to another organisation it may also wish to delegate complaint handling. However, the landlord remains responsible for complying with the terms of its membership of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme and compliance with the Code.
The Code seeks to encourage landlords to retain some level of responsibility regarding the services provided to its residents by third parties acting on their behalf. The landlord has discretion as to how it monitors its contractors and subcontractors, with a common method being retaining responsibility for the final complaint decision.
A landlord would not be held responsible for the actions of a third party that it does not directly employ and over which it has no control.
Does a landlord need permission in writing from the resident before dealing with their nominated representative?
The Code advocates accessibility to the complaints service and would encourage landlords to accept representatives where requested by residents. How such permissions should be handled and in what circumstances they will be accepted should be clearly set out in a landlord’s complaint policy and procedure and should be compliant with data protection requirements.
Accessibility and awareness
Must a landlord provide access to its complaints procedure through all the channels listed in the Code?
The Code emphasises the importance of easy access to the complaints procedure. It is a matter for each landlord as to how they ensure residents are easily able to access the complaints procedure via several routes. Restricting access to the complaints procedure to one sole method of entry is likely to breach the Complaint Handling Code.
The Code requires information about complaints to be on a landlord’s website. What is the position of a small landlord which does not have a website?
The Ombudsman recognises that there may be a minority of landlords (for example small co-ops) which do not have a website. In such cases, landlords would not be held to account for not publishing details of the complaints process on a website. There is still an expectation under the Code that information regarding the complaints procedure is shared as widely as possible via other alternative means.
Do landlords have to respond to a complaint via the route it was made?
A landlord has discretion as to how to respond to a complaint. The Code would not expect landlords to necessarily use the same route that the complaint was made. For example, it would not be appropriate for a complaint response to be shared via social media as this comes with several risks, not least in terms of confidentiality. The complaints policy should clearly set out how such complaints will be dealt with.
The Code promotes regular correspondence with residents, can this be online?
Landlords have discretion as to how and when they correspond with their residents. The Code does not change this, but adds an expectation that, when appropriate, correspondence, in whatever form, provides details of the complaints process and the contact details for the Housing Ombudsman Service.
When should we advise residents of their right to contact the Housing Ombudsman Service?
A landlord must inform residents of their right to bring complaints to the Housing Ombudsman Service. This information should be included in both the complaints policy and the landlord’s final complaint response, and in other relevant information.
Does early engagement with the Ombudsman interfere with the landlord’s complaints procedure?
Whilst a complaint is in the landlord’s complaints procedure our role is to support effective landlord-tenant dispute resolution. This may involve informing landlords that a complaint has been made, clarifying the areas of complaint and the outcomes sought with both parties, managing expectations in relation to outcomes and timings, along with assisting progression through the complaints procedure.
Should a landlord advise residents about the designated person process?
Landlords should give clear advice to residents about the steps they need to take to refer a complaint to the Ombudsman. For the time being this should include information about the designated person process. It should be noted that the Draft Building Safety Bill includes amendments that will remove the designated person requirements if the Act becomes law.
The Code sates that landlords should have a reasonable adjustment policy in place to support/comply with the Equality Act 2010. Do we need a stand-alone policy?
Under the Equality Act 2010 public sector organisations have to make changes in their approach or provision to ensure that services are accessible to disabled people as well as everybody else. Reasonable adjustments can mean alterations to buildings by providing lifts, wide doors, ramps and tactile signage, but may also mean changes to policies, procedures and staff training to ensure that services work equally well for people with, for example, learning disabilities.
The Code seeks to support this by setting out the requirement to have a Reasonable Adjustment Policy, explaining how the landlord will approach compliance in relation to this element of the Equality Act. Such policies are commonly used across the sector.
Whether this policy is a stand-alone document or is incorporated into a broader policy e.g. an Equality and Diversity or Complaints Policy is for the individual landlord to decide. It is important that the guidance provided around this subject is robust, so that staff have a reliable reference point and framework to ensure compliance with the Equality Act. It should therefore be made easily accessible. If it is a stand-alone document it should be referenced in the landlord’s Complaints Policy.
Complaint team, procedure, timeliness and responsiveness
Do we have to set up a specific complaint team to deal with complaints?
Landlords are under no obligation to have a specialist specific team to deal with complaints under the Code. The Code is clear that it can be a person who deals with complaints, not necessarily a team, and ‘For some organisations, particularly smaller landlords, we recognise that this role may not be dedicated to complaint handling.’
There is no requirement for a landlord to restructure unless they think it best to do so. The Housing Ombudsman Service does not promote either a service-led or centralised team approach to complaint handling. Landlords do need to make it clear to residents who is responsible and the point of contact for complaint-handling. Landlords also need to have a clear point of contact and arrangements for liaising with the Ombudsman. In most cases this will not be different from what landlords are already doing.
How do quick complaint resolutions such as ‘stage 0’ fit into the new two-stage process?
The Housing Ombudsman Service encourages the early and local resolution of disputes between landlords and residents. We recognise that many residents may not wish to follow a formal process and just want an issue resolved.
Landlords should ensure that efforts to resolve a complaint informally do not obstruct access to the complaints procedure or result in any unreasonable delay. Any decision to try and resolve a complaint informally should be taken in agreement with the resident and a landlord’s audit trail/records should ideally be able to demonstrate this.
If a resident expresses a wish for their concerns to be treated as a formal complaint (and it falls within the definition as set out in the Code) they should not be unreasonably denied that opportunity.
The Ombudsman encourages landlords to maintain good records, even when dealing with an issue informally, and to put responses in writing to avoid any future disputes arising. Good record keeping will allow landlords to assess and demonstrate the efficiency with which they resolve disputes.
Information regarding informal resolution should be set out in the Complaint Policy to provide clear guidance to residents and staff on a landlord’s overall approach.
Are the timescales for complaint responses at each stage mandatory?
Time frames for responding to complaints is an area where the Code is prescriptive. Not only to provide some clarity and consistency, but also to try and address the concerns expressed by residents (as highlighted in the Social Housing Green Paper). The time frames prescribed by the Code are based on research and reflect the average time frames in landlords’ policies across the sector. They are therefore not dissimilar to the timescales that many landlords work towards already.
Landlords are expected to align their response times with the Code or explain why they do not align. The Ombudsman accepts that there may be circumstances which make adopting the time frames challenging for some landlords. For example, small cooperatives may not be equipped with the resources to respond to complaints as quickly as other landlords. There may also be challenges for local authorities which operate a corporate complaint procedure across all service areas. It would not be fair to expect them to operate two differing processes in tandem i.e. one for housing and another for the other service areas.
If landlords have a process in place which is working effectively, with time frames which vary slightly from those prescribed by the Code, they may consider this to be a valid reason not to make any alterations to their existing response times. The self -assessment (which landlords are expected to complete by the end of December 2020) should be used by landlords to explain why their response times do not align with the Code.
Is it possible to extend the timescales?
The Code allows landlords the discretion to extend response times by ten days at stages 1 and 2 (and beyond - where there is a good reason to do so). Examples of a ‘good reason’ could include:
- a delay by a third party, over which a landlord has no control, in providing information
- requiring further time to undertake interviews
- needing longer to acquire all the information required from multiple sources to enable a landlord to properly investigate a long-standing, complex case
Whether an extension is required should be assessed on a case by case basis and residents should be kept informed.
The Ombudsman hopes that prescribing response times and allowing discretion to extend those times provides the right balance between ensuring landlords pursue fair outcomes and respond to complaints in a timely manner.
Is there a time frame for residents regarding requests to escalate a complaint?
The Code does not give a timescale for escalation requests; this is a matter for individual landlords. The landlord should exercise this discretion fairly and avoid imposing blanket bans. There may be a valid reason why a resident may delay in requesting escalation of a complaint, for example if the problem did not recur within the time frame.
There may also be occasions where a resident unreasonably delays in raising or escalating a complaint and where it is therefore reasonable for the landlord to decline to escalate the complaint.
We have Stage 1 and Stage 2 and then, if required, a resident can request an Independent Tenants Panel if unhappy with the Stage 2 result, is that ok?
There is provision in the Code for a third stage in instances where ‘a landlord believes strongly it requires one.’ The reasons for having a third stage should be set out in the self-assessment which landlords are expected to complete by December 2020.
The Code encourages resident involvement in complaint-handling and sees this as a sign of a healthy and positive complaint-handling culture.
Some complex complaints can take longer to fully resolve, particularly when works need to be scheduled. Is it okay to keep these complaints open to ensure agreed actions are competed?
Landlords should aim to provide their formal complaint responses within the target response times prescribed by the Code. Those responses should be an assessment and evaluation of the events that led up to the complaint being registered and should indicate what actions a landlord intends to take to put things right.
Where this involves undertaking work which may take weeks or months to complete, a landlord may want to provide a schedule and time frame and monitor progress.
Residents should also be given the opportunity to escalate their complaint to the next stage of the complaint procedure should they be dissatisfied with the landlord’s overall response, including its compliance with its proposal. A template example letter has been produced which is accessible.
Does the Code include a timescale from the Ombudsman as to how long it will take to determine a complaint once it comes into your jurisdiction?
The Ombudsman has committed to continue to reduce determination times with the aim of an average of 3 to 4 months by 2022. This is separate from the Code and is a commitment that has been set out in our 2020-2021 Business Plan.
The Code states that communication with the resident should not generally identify individual members of staff or contractors as their actions are undertaken on behalf of the landlord. Does this mean that landlords should not include names of employees in any responses to complaints?
This aspect of the Code seeks to emphasise the importance of a landlord taking collective responsibility for the actions of its employees and contractors rather than trying to apportion responsibility by directly naming individuals where there is no reason to do so. Any reference to individuals should be compliant with data protection legislation.
Fairness in complaint handling
What would be a ‘reasonable reason’ for declining an escalation request?
The Ombudsman encourages landlords to use every stage of the internal complaint procedure as a genuine opportunity to resolve a dispute with a resident. The Code requires landlords to be clear about the circumstances in which complaints will not be escalated.
There may be occasions where a landlord is happy to rely on its stage one response as its final decision – perhaps because a resident has provided no reasons for disagreeing with that decision. It is for a landlord to decide when this is appropriate, ensuring that its policy is clear that this may happen, and that it only takes such action for valid reasons, after careful consideration.
Even in instances where a landlord thinks the response at the next stage of the complaint procedure will be the same, there may still be value in escalating a complaint. If a resident hears the same answer from somebody more senior or from a Panel with a degree of impartiality (which may include a resident), it may reassure them that they have been listened to and treated fairly and result in the complaint being closed.
How do we deal with complaints that are being pursued unreasonably?
The Ombudsman recognises that in certain circumstances it may be appropriate for a landlord to go outside its complaints policy and close complaints early if a resident exhibits unacceptable behaviour.
The Code does not define what type of behaviour is unacceptable and does not specify how a landlord should manage it. Paragraphs 4.14 and 4.15 state that landlords should have a separate policy to deal with how such cases should be managed, recognising that managing such behaviour is an important part of effective complaint-handling.
Putting things right
If goodwill compensation is offered as redress, should we issue the payment even if the customer has not explicitly accepted it?
This is a judgement call which should be made on a case by case basis in dialogue with the resident. It should be noted that, even in instances where a resident does accept any compensation offered by a landlord at the final stage of the internal complaint procedure, this does not prevent them from being able to escalate their complaint to the Ombudsman.
Can a compensation payment be paid into the rent account if the tenant is in rent arrears?
This is addressed in the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies.
Are there any guidelines for amounts of compensation for non-quantifiable reasons such as stress or inconvenience?
It is down to each individual landlord to agree its own Compensation Policy which should set out the circumstances in which it will pay compensation and the amounts involved. This is not something that would be prescribed by the Ombudsman. Landlords may find it useful to look at our Remedies Guidance and the Compensation Policy Guidance
Continuous learning and improvement
What lessons learnt are you expecting landlords to record?
The Ombudsman encourages landlords to use complaints as a source of intelligence to identify issues and introduce positive changes in service delivery. This approach has been actively promoted by the service for many years and is strongly reinforced by the Code. Learning from complaints should include complaints that landlords try and resolve informally as well as those that are dealt with through the formal complaint procedure. It is for each individual landlord to find a system of learning from complaints which suits them best.
Would you expect landlords to publish their lessons learnt in their Annual Report for the first time after year ending Mach 2021 or March 2022?
The Code requires a landlord to share its learning with residents, including a specific requirement to include any organisational learning in its Annual Report. The Ombudsman recognises that it may be difficult for some landlords to include this information in the Annual Report for 2020/21 – but should do so where possible. We would expect to see this information included in future Annual Reports.
Does the Code require or recommend a scrutiny role for residents in the complaints process?
The Ombudsman considers the involvement of residents to be an effective part of managing disputes and a sign of a healthy complaint-handling culture. There is no requirement in the Code to have resident involvement in the complaint procedure although it is something that is encouraged.
The Code refers to the Ombudsman’s yearly landlord performance report, what is this?
These reports will provide landlords with an insight into the complaints that the Ombudsman has received from their residents over a three-year period.
We will publish reports for all landlords who received an Ombudsman’s determination in 2019-2020. Our aim is for these to be available on our website from December 2020 onwards.
How frequently should this be done?
There is a requirement for landlords to self-assess against the Code by December 2020, to publish the results and take appropriate steps to make sure complaint-handling is in line with the Code. The results of this self-assessment should be reported to the Board, or in the case of Local Authorities to elected members.
The Code does not specify a reporting period and landlords can decide what time frame will provide the most insight. The self-assessment is a tool for landlords to use to identify areas that require change and to plan and implement any necessary adjustments to their complaint-handling. Landlords may wish to carry out an initial assessment to identify any required changes, and then produce a further assessment after changes have been made. The most up-to-date assessment should be published by 31 December 2020.
Section 2.3 of the Code states that there may be occasions where the Ombudsman will require a further self-assessment. The Ombudsman would encourage landlords to self-assess against the Code at regular intervals so that they can maintain standards and gauge how they are performing against the Code.
Why are some of the boxes in the self-assessment shaded?
These are sections where there is not a yes/no answer.
Where should the self-assessment be published?
The self-assessment is to enable a landlord to see how they are doing against the Code and help identify areas where improvements may be undertaken. The publishing of the self-assessment should enable residents to see how their landlord is doing and any actions that are being taken as a result. This may be published on a landlord’s website or through the usual resident communication channels. There is no requirement to provide a copy to the Ombudsman unless this is requested as part of the evidence required for an investigation.