The Health Service Ombudsman

Who is the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman?

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman provides an independent complaint handling service for complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS in England and UK government departments.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman combines the two statutory roles of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Parliamentary Ombudsman) and Health Service Commissioner for England (Health Service Ombudsman), whose powers are respectively outlined in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 and the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993. The current Ombudsman is Rob Behrens, CBE.

How can the Health Service Ombudsman help me?

If you have gone through the NHS complaints procedure, but you are dissatisfied with the outcome, you can refer the matter to the Ombudsman who is independent of the NHS and can make final decisions on complaints.

He investigates complaints where there is evidence that prejudice or hardship has been caused by failure to provide a service; failure in the service itself; or maladministration. Maladministration may include:

  • slow or unsatisfactory responses to letters;
  • incorrect or misleading information and advice;
  • discrimination;
  • rudeness or unhelpfulness;
  • failure to follow reasonable rules in procedures and administration;
  • poor health services, such as a long wait for treatment or an operation;
  • failure to provide a disability aid;
  • dirty wards at a hospital;
  • unhelpful or inadequate staffing at a hospital;
  • complaints about GPs, dentists, opticians and pharmacists working for the NHS; and
  • refusal to provide information to which you are entitled.

The Ombudsman does not have to take up every complaint. Out of more than 29,000 complaints received each year, just over 25 per cent are considered. The Ombudsman will not investigate a case that has not been through the NHS complaints procedure and will also not usually investigate a case that you could be expected to pursue in the court.

There is no right of appeal against the Ombudsman’s decision, and he will only establish a fresh examination into a grievance if new information is received which could not reasonably have been recognised earlier (this is unusual). However, the Ombudsman’s decision and any recommendations cannot be legally enforced.

What is the advantage of complaining to the Ombudsman?

The Ombudsman is independent of the NHS and it is a free service. Everyone is treated fairly and impartially, whatever their background or circumstances. In addition, complaints are considered quickly: the Ombudsman aims to give a decision within 20 working days of receiving your complaint.

Complaining to the Ombudsman is an advantageous route where a direct complaint has been unfruitful, and you do not have a legal claim to compensation.

Making a complaint

You should make your complaint to the Ombudsman within a year of the relevant incident or circumstances (or knowing about the issue/s). However, where more than a year has passed, your complaint may still be considered if, for instance, you were bereaved, or you were too ill to complain earlier; or it took the NHS a long time to consider your complaint.

How to complain?

Write to the Ombudsman explaining in detail why you are unhappy about how your original complaint was handled. You can also complain on behalf of someone else, but you must explain why the person cannot do so and that, if appropriate, you have their agreement. You may be making a complaint on behalf of a child.

What will happen?

The Ombudsman will carry out some initial checks and let you know if he will take on your complaint. This takes around five days. If your complaint will be considered by the Ombudsman, a statement setting out the matters to be looked into will be sent to both the parties. Comments and relevant medical papers will be requested from the hospital, GP, dentist or other NHS service about which you are complaining. The Ombudsman may also want to interview you or other parties, and may ask for independent expert medical advice.

The Ombudsman will then write a detailed report and send a copy to both the parties. He may recommend that you receive an apology, that a decision be altered, that costs be returned to you, or that the service concerned introduces changes in the way it operates.


Having your complaint investigated by the Ombudsman is free. If you pay for legal help to assist with your complaint, you cannot claim the costs back.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.