1. Introduction

The PPO’s Terms of Reference give it the powers and responsibility to investigate complaints from prisoners, those subject to probation and immigration detainees. The PPO will accept complaints from any individual within these categories without regard to gender, sexual orientation, marital status, race, colour, nationality, ethnic or
national origin, religion, age or disability.

The PPO, in the course of investigating a complaint, is happy to communicate with complainants via letter, email and telephone, and will visit to speak face-to-face when necessary. There are, in the normal course of events, no restrictions on access to the PPO for complainants.

Occasionally, the behaviour or actions of individuals using our service makes it very difficult for us to deal with their complaint, or the complaints of others. In a small number of cases the actions become unacceptable because they involve abuse of our staff or our processes.

When this happens we have to take action to protect our service to the individual, to others who use our service, and to protect our staff. We decide what action to take by considering the impact of the behaviour on our ability to do our work and provide a service to all those that wish to use us.

We define complainants who exhibit unreasonable behaviour as:

Those complainants who, because of the nature or frequency of their contacts with the organisation, hinder the PPO’s consideration of their, or other people’s, complaints.

This policy explains how we identify unreasonable behaviour from complainants and manage their interaction with the PPO, and how we protect the rights of complainants throughout the process.

2. Examples of behaviour that the PPO finds unacceptable

These are the types of behaviour that the PPO finds unacceptable and may take action against under this policy. The list is not exhaustive.

Excessive unhelpful communication

The PPO is pro-active in seeking out the information it requires to investigate a complaint thoroughly and objectively. We also endeavour to keep complainants up to date with progress when the complaint is complex and the time scale therefore lengthy. Generally we do not require additional information to be sent in during our investigation unless it is new and relevant to the complaint.

However, sometimes the volume and/or unfocused nature of letters sent in by complainants can cause us problems in resolving the complaint. A complainant might, for example, inundate us with copies of information that has already been sent in or that is not relevant to the complaint, or might write very lengthy letters raising new issues outside the scope of their original complaint or referring to different complaints in the same letter.

The same can be true of phone communication. Lengthy calls going over the same ground and providing no new information will distract the investigator from progressing the complaint

Unreasonable demands

The PPO exists to provide a service to all complainants and aims to respond positively to requests when reasonable, for example providing an update on the progress of a complaint. A demand though is unacceptable if complying with it would substantially impact on the work of the office and not be a good use of staff time.

Such demands include repeatedly demanding a response within an unreasonable timescale, insisting on speaking to a particular member of staff when that is not possible and insisting that particular staff do or do not deal with a complaint. Such behaviour may also include repeatedly changing the substance of a complaint or raising unrelated issues.

Unreasonable use of the complaints process

It is important for complainants to be able to ask for an objective investigation into a situation where they believe they are not being treated fairly or according to policy. A complainant has the right to complain to us about an individual establishment as many times as they need.

There may be times though when we consider that an individual is making continued vexatious complaints. Such use of the complaints system would risk taking up PPO staff time and delaying the progression of genuine complaints.

Access to the PPO is an absolute right for complainants but if such circumstances do arise we reserve the right to take action to ensure the use of the complaints process is legitimate.

Abusive behaviour

We understand the sometimes difficult circumstances of complainants and that they may be frustrated and angry because of the way they feel they have been treated. We recognise that complainants by definition are not happy with the situation.

The PPO will not accept any abusive behaviour directed towards staff, whether this is in written, phone or face-to-face communication. Such behaviour would include – repeatedly directing swear words at PPO staff, ignoring requests to stop doing so, using swear words, racist or sexist language in describing individuals or groups of staff that the complainant has complained about. Such behaviour would also include shouting at or repeatedly interrupting PPO staff, and making threats against staff.

Sending letters or other material smeared with blood or other bodily fluids, excrement or other undesirable substances, or containing obscene material, will be categorised as abusive behaviour.

Other unreasonable behaviour

The categories and examples above provide the basis for the PPO determining whether any action is required against individual complainants. But the organisation reserves the right to fairly determine that other repeated behaviour that stops it performing efficiently and effectively, progressing complaints from all its customers, or ensuring its staff can work without abuse or harassment, is classed as unreasonable.

3. Process for managing unreasonable behaviour

Stage 1 – Initial concerns raised

Anyone at the PPO may decide that the behaviour of an individual complainant needs to be considered to identify whether it is unreasonable, under the guidelines given in section 2 of this policy. At this stage the member of staff will gather the evidence and raise the matter with an Assistant Ombudsman.

Stage 2 – Confirmation of unreasonable behaviour

An Assistant Ombudsman will consider the evidence presented, and collate more if required. The Assistant will check specifically that the quality of the responses that the individual has had from the PPO has been of an appropriately high standard. The Assistant will also consider the individual’s circumstances and any mitigating circumstances. The Assistant may also consult others in the PPO. The Assistant will then take the decision whether the individual’s behaviour is considered to be unreasonable by the PPO.

Stage 3 – Written notification of unacceptable behaviour

If unreasonable behaviour is confirmed, an Assistant will write to the individual to notify them that their behaviour has been deemed unreasonable to the PPO and what action they must take themselves to curtail that unreasonable behaviour. The letter will detail what behaviour specifically is unacceptable and when in the past this behaviour has been shown. The letter will make clear that their behaviour is hindering the PPO’s consideration of their, or other people’s, complaints and that if it continues the PPO reserves the right to take action.

Stage 4 –Implementation of action

If the unreasonable behaviour persists, the PPO will take appropriate action. An Assistant Ombudsman will make the decision to take action. The PPO will write to the complainant again confirming what action will be taken and what is required of them. If any of the actions that the PPO takes are of the sort that can be withdrawn at a later stage if a change in behaviour warrants it, the timescale will be specified.

Stage 5 – Review

All cases where an individual has had their behaviour classed as unreasonable will have that classification reviewed on at least a monthly basis. There is a presumption to relax or remove actions where this is possible, and if a change in behaviour warrants it. The Review will be conducted by an Assistant Ombudsman.

4. Examples of what action might be taken

Actions that the PPO may take in response to unreasonable behaviour include:

  • Limiting the frequency of communication[1]
  • Limiting the length of written communication
  • Requiring the complainant to refer to no more than one complaint in each letter
  • Requiring written communication to be on a provided pro-forma
  • Requiring complaints to be on the PPO form (forms will be provided)
  • Phone calls not accepted
  • Phone calls only to be taken by a named member of staff

5. Documentation of the process

All stages of the process (one to five as given in section 3) will be fully documented, including the evidence considered and the decisions taken.

6. Dealing with abusive answerphone messages

PPO staff will not engage with answerphone messages if they consider the caller abusive. PPO staff at all levels have the right to make this decision themselves. The details of the message will be logged.

7. Dealing with threats to staff

Threats made against PPO staff will always be taken with the utmost seriousness whether made in writing, by phone, or during a personal interview. Incidents may be reported to the police.

8. Individual consideration

The PPO understands that its complainants live day to day in circumstances that can be difficult and stressful and where freedom is curtailed. The PPO also appreciates that each individual has a different set of circumstances and personal history. So each complainant will be considered as an individual and no actions will be applied in a generic way. This means that what appear to be similar unreasonable behaviours exhibited by different individuals might be managed in different ways.

9. Third Parties

The PPO’s Terms of Reference allow it to deal with friends and family of a complainant where it is not possible for the individual to adequately deal with the PPO themselves. This is strictly the case in very limited circumstances – eg we may deal direct with the mother or father of a very young person in custody. The PPO does in practice deal with relatives sometimes on a goodwill basis, to try to give assurance. However this is on a goodwill basis and the PPO reserves the right to take any appropriate action against athird party individual if their behaviour is unreasonable without going through the process outlined in 2 above. For example the PPO may decide to sever all communication with such an individual immediately following an abusive call.

10. Review of Policy

This policy will be reviewed as a minimum on a 12 monthly basis.

[1] We will not limit the number of complaints that an individual can make to us, as long as each complaint has been through the internal complaints system and is not part of a vexatious campaign against an organisation.