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Dealing with unreasonable complainant behaviour

I have reviewed the file
I have consider the following criteria
  •  The merits of the complainant’s case
  • The complainant’s circumstances
  • Proportionality
  • Organisational responsibility
  • Behaviour that is unreasonable in all circumstances
Has the complainant been afforded the opportunity to address their behaviour
I have considered all reasonable options for managing the complainant’s behaviour, including those that do not involve restricting their access to services

Date  __________________________

Signature ______________________

Measures taken must be appropriate and proportionate. Options to consider include

  • Confirm to the complainant that all lines and avenues with regard to the complaints process have been exhausted in line with the Board’s complaints policy
  • Ask the complainant to enter into an agreement about their future conduct
  • Requesting contact in a particular form (letters only)
  • Requiring contact to take place with a named officer and restricting any phone calls to specified days and times
  • Limit the email addresses that can be contacted by the complainant
  • Restrict the number of issues that will be dealt with in a given period
  • Limit the number of emails in any one period  and direct that they be as concise as possible

At all times, the Board will try to maintain at least one form of contact with the complainant.

Terminating all contact with the complainant will be considered where the behaviour shows no sign of abating (this decision will be taken at Director level)

Where the behaviour of a complainant is so extreme that it threatens the safety and welfare of the Board’s staff, the Board will consider options such as notifying the Garda Síochána.  In such circumstances, the Board may not give the complainant prior warning. The staff member who is dealing with a complainant in these circumstances will be supported by their manager and offered advice in relation to the Civil Service Employee Assistance Officer.

Procedure 7.6 – Staff guidelines for managing unreasonable complainant behaviour.

Any member of staff who directly experiences aggressive or abusive behaviour from a complainant (as described in this note) has the authority to deal immediately with that behaviour in a manner that is reasonable and proportionate. The staff member should:

  1. Record a memo of the date and time and the language/behaviour of the complainant and your responses
  2. Be accurate in your recording;
  3. Avoid using emotive language;
  4. Keep copies of written materials, letters, emails or other social media messages;
  5. Bring details to the attention of your manager.

This process gathers evidence to assist in assessing whether a complainant’s behaviour amounts to unreasonable behaviour having regard to the contents of this policy.

Standard process for abusive calls or abusive behaviour experienced on phone

  1. Be polite at all times and remain calm;When the person first uses unacceptable or threatening behaviour (including inappropriate language), inform them that this is not acceptable and ask them to stop;
  2. If the behaviour continues remind the caller that your have asked them to stop and that you will end the call if he/she continues in the same manner;
  3. If the behaviour continues – end the conversation;
  4. If the caller calls back, repeat point 2 to 4 above and inform the person that his/her behaviour could be regarded as abusive/threatening and it is the Board’s policy to discontinue telephone calls- repeat step 4, if necessary.

Standard process for abusive correspondence

  1. Consider whether a response is required. This may be done in conjunction with your line manager;
  2. If a response is required: At all times be polite. Do not use emotive language. Do not show anger;
  3. Point out why this correspondence is unacceptable;
  4. Advise that you will not accept further correspondence from the person concerned unless he/she ceases using unacceptable/threatening language.

Standard process for persistent telephone calls

  1. Be polite at all times;
  2. Advise the caller that you are aware that he/she has made previous calls about the same issue;
  3. Advise the caller that you have answered to the best of your ability and that nothing further can be done or that the matter is being addressed and that they can accept contact from the investigating officer by a certain date and that you will not be in a position to update then until then;
  4. Advise the caller that you are unable to spend any further time discussing the matter and that you therefore intend to end the call;
  5. Advise the caller that you are ending the call and that he/she should not call again unless there is something new to discuss;
  6. End the call;
  7. If the caller calls back repeat step 3 and advise the caller that his/her behaviour could be regarded and unreasonable behaviour – repeat step 4 to 6;
  8. If the caller calls back again advise the caller that you intend to report the matter to your manager, repeat step 5 and end the call

Standard process for persistent correspondence

  1. Advise the correspondent that you are aware that he/she has made previous contact about the same issue;
  2. Advise the person that you have answered to the best of your ability and that nothing further can be done or that the matter is being addressed and that he/she can expect contact from the investigating officer by a certain date and that you will not be corresponding with him/her until then.

The procedure outlined below should be followed where the investigating officer considers categorising a complainant’s behaviour as unreasonable.

  • Where the investigating officer is the managing solicitor and the managing solicitor considers a complainant’s behaviour as unreasonable then the managing solicitor will review the matter with the Regional Manager who will consider this matter in accordance with the procedures below.
  • Where the investigating officer is the Regional Manager and the Regional Manager considers a complainant’s behaviour as unreasonable then the Regional Manager will review the matter with the Director of Civil Legal Aid who will consider this matter in accordance with the procedure below.
  • Following this determination, the manager (Regional Manager/Director of Civil Legal Aid) will notify the complainant of these measures in writing and of the reasons why his/her behaviour has been deemed unreasonable
  • This notification will be copied for the information of all those involved
  • A hard copy should be placed on the client file and a separate complaint file will be set up for future reference regarding the reasons why an individual’s behaviour is deemed as unreasonable and actions taken relating to same

The following approach should be taken in responding to unreasonable complainant behaviour.

  • The substance of the complaint should determine how the investigating officer responds to the complaint (not the complainant’s demands or behaviour);
  • The Board will act respectfully towards the complainant and impartially with regard to the complaint, regardless of the complainant’s behaviour;
  • The investigating officer will ensure that the complaints procedure has been correctly followed and no element of the complaint has been overlooked or inadequately addressed;
  • The investigating officer will explain to the complainant when and why it is considered the complainant’s behaviour is unreasonable and afford the complainant the opportunity to change their behaviour;
  • Any measure taken in relation to unreasonable complainant behaviour must be proportionate and appropriate to the circumstances, fair to the complainant and fair to the staff involved.

This section of the Handbook gives guidance on when complainant behaviour can be classed as unreasonable and it outlines options to manage such situations.  It should be read in conjunction with the Board’s policy for dealing with complaints.

While the majority of complainants interact with the office in a restrained and reasonable manner, we fully appreciate that some are particularly stressed when pursuing complaints against the Board and that, from time to time, this stress will show in how they interact with the Office. Each member of staff knows that managing such interactions is an intrinsic part of the job.

However, this does not mean that we expect our staff to tolerate behaviour by our customers that is abusive, offensive, threatening or, due to the frequency of contact, accounts for a disproportionate amount of time and resources at the expense of dealing with other complaints and investigations.  This issue is particularly acute at a time when resources are at a premium.

Unreasonable complainant behaviour has been estimated as comprising of between 3% and 5% of cases.1

1 -Office of the Ombudsman of Ireland,2015

Classifying complainant behaviour as unreasonable is a serious matter and deciding whether to do so should be carefully considered.

When complainants are aggressive, threatening, make excessive or inappropriate demands of the Board’s staff or engage in unacceptable behaviour towards the Board’s staff, this is viewed as unreasonable complainant behaviour. When this happens, consideration should be given to the impact of behaviour on staff capacity to do their work and provide a service to others.

In the context of this guidance, unreasonable complainant behaviour may be categorised as[1]:

Unreasonable persistence: Persistence with a complaint that has already been investigated by the Board/Ombudsman’s Office, often after an internal appeal.  The persistence may manifest itself in different ways, for example insisting that the complaint be looked at again by another Officer (following completion of appeal process), re-framing the complaint to present it as a fresh complaint, or persevering with an argument that has already been addressed.

Unreasonable demands: An outcome or approach is expected that is unrealistic or disproportionate. Examples include repeated demands for investigation of a matter that is outside the remit, or trying to direct the investigating officer as to how to conduct the investigation. The sending of multiple and lengthy emails is an example of unreasonableness.  The sending of such emails can be relatively easy for someone bearing in mind that the issue may be consuming their attention and time.  However, for staff who are expected to respond to every communication the receipt of multiple and lengthy emails (sometimes in one day) is beyond their capacity.  Complaint emails should be limited to one email per week and should be of reasonable length (e.g. not more than 750 words).  Failure to abide by this approach may result in the senders email address being blocked.

A demand becomes unreasonable when

  • It starts to impact substantially on the work of staff investigating the complaint; or
  • Complying with the demand would impact substantially on the work of staff investigating the complaint
  • The complainant is repeatedly demanding responses within an unreasonable timeframe
  • The complainant is insisting on seeing or speaking to a particular member of staff when that is not possible or necessary
  • The complainant is repeatedly changing the substance of a complaint or raising unrelated concerns

Unreasonable lack of co-operation: Persistent presentation of a complaint in a disorganised manner.  Examples include:

  • Not identifying the complaint clearly
  • Presentation of often unnecessary voluminous material while expecting almost instantaneous responses
  • Transforming the complaint mid-way through the process and occasional dishonesty in the statement of facts.

Unreasonable arguments: Examples include:

  • Exaggerating issues;
  • Presenting irrelevant and/or unreasonable arguments;
  • Placing too much emphasis on trivialities;
  • Insisting that the complainant’s version of events be accepted as fact where there is no objective evidence to support this view;
  • Obstinately refusing to consider counter arguments;
  • Being guided by unfounded conspiracy theories;
  • By desire for revenge or retribution against another person or public body.

Threats, intimidation and/or abuse: Examples of this include:

  • Threats of violence;
  • Actual violence;
  • Verbal abuse of Board staff;
  • Rude or aggressive conduct or threats of self-harm;
  • Violence is not restricted to acts of aggression that may result in physical harm.[2] It also includes behaviour or language whether verbal or written that may cause staff to feel afraid, threatened or abused and may include threats, derogatory personal remarks, inflammatory statements or rudeness. 

[1] These categories are based upon the Office of the Ombudsman, Ireland, Policy for Dealing with Unreasonable Complainant Conduct, www.ombudsman.gov.ie
[2] EU definition of work-related aggression and violence is “Any incident where staff are abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances related to their work, involving an explicit or implicit  challenge to their safety, well being or health”