House of Commons Library

Police complaints systems in the UK

Published Thursday, June 15, 2017

This Briefing Paper gives basic factual information about the police complaints system in England and Wales to assist with constituents’ questions. It also gives brief information on the systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland, mainly for comparative purposes. Major reforms to the system in England and Wales are coming when the Policing and Crime Act 2017 comes into force.

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England and Wales

The current system is complex, and so is the legislation governing it.  In brief:

  • The public can make complaints in a variety of ways
  • Others (including MPs) can complain on their behalf, but the legislation says that written consent is necessary
  • More than a third of allegations will be dealt with by “local resolution” – an informal procedure which might, for example, result in an explanation or apology
  • Around half of allegations will be the subject of an investigation
  • The relevant police force will conduct most investigations into complaints
  • Some of the more serious complaints may be investigated by a different force
  • Some serious “conduct matters” can be investigated even if there hasn’t been a complaint
  • The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) may supervise or manage the investigations which forces carry out
  • The IPCC will investigate only the most serious complaints itself
  • In addition to complaints, the IPCC will also investigate deaths and serious injuries linked to police contact
  • The IPCC hears appeals against the findings of investigations into more serious complaints; chief officers hear other appeals against the findings of other investigations.
  • The IPCC also hear appeals against decisions not to record a complaint, or against the results of local resolution.

There is no further right of appeal to the IPCC’s decision, or to chief officers’ decisions on those appeals which they hear. If a complainant remained unsatisfied and wanted to pursue the matter, they would have to seek redress through judicial review, and would need legal advice.

Reforms to the system

The Policing and Crime Act 2017 will make major changes to the system when the relevant sections come into force.  These include:

  • Allowing Police and Crime Commissioners to take on a much greater role in the police complaints system, choosing between three different models
  • Introducing a system of "super-complaints" so that certain organisations could complain abouut trends or patterns in policiing
  • Renaming the IPCC the "Independent Office for Police Conduct"


In Scotland, if a complainant is unhappy with the response offered by the police to a non-criminal complaint, they can refer it to the Police Investigations and Review Commission who may then carry out a review of the way in which it was handled. The PIRC can direct that the complaint must be reconsidered. 

The PIRC can also investigate the most serious incidents independently.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, all complaints are investigated by the independent Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. The creation of the Ombudsman was a key part of the peace process, following criticisms of the previous system.


Commons Briefing papers SN02056

Author: Pat Strickland

Topic: Police

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