We regularly get enquiries from service personnel who have been bullied, victimised or discriminated against at work.

Understandably, most service personnel feel that they don’t want to make things more difficult for themselves by raising a formal service complaint. However, you can lose out if you don’t make your complaint formal; many are not even aware of that the process exists.

The following is a brief guide for service personnel considering raising a service complaint or taking matters further in the employment tribunal, county or high court. 

How to raise a Service Complaint

All service complaints must be put in writing – in a letter or email – and you must use the service complaints form, which can be downloaded here:

You should forward the complaint directly to your Commanding Officer. They are obliged to consider it if it is received in time i.e. within three months of any incident that you are complaining about.

I usually advise my clients to forward the complaint simultaneously to the Service Complaints Commissioner and their Commanding Officer, to avoid any doubt, particularly when their complaints relate to action taken by him or her.

The Service Complaints Commissioner and her staff will treat the information you provide in confidence, unless she has to take steps to prevent someone coming to serious harm.

The Commissioner cannot decide complaints, nor can she re-open complaints that have already been decided. It is for your Commanding Officer to decide the outcome of your complaint, but, where they are involved, another officer would normally be appointed to make the decision.

The Service Complaints Commissioner does have power to recommend that a complaint be considered out of time, and this is discussed further below. 

What to say in your service complaint

It’s very hard to summarise on a form the often complicated and emotionally distressing events that have led to a service complaint. All cases will be different. You should try and focus on the facts and the reasons why you feel you need to complain.

The Service Complaints Commissioner recommends that you set out:

  • Your name, contact and service details
  • The name and contact details of the man or woman who harassed you
  • Their rank, Service, Service number and where they are based
  • Behaviour complained of (giving as much detail as possible)
  • When the incident(s) took place
  • Who was involved
  • If the complaint is about or involves your Commanding Officer
  • Why you want to make a complaint and what you would like to happen as a result
  • If you are content for the Commissioner to inform your Commanding Officer of your complaint 

You should aim to provide as much detail as possible; otherwise your complaint might not be fully investigated. When you have a number of incidents to describe, breaking these down into bullet point form or numbered paragraphs can help make your complaints clearer and easier to understand.

You should also include details of any witnesses or evidence you have to support your complaints, and attach copies of any documents that you want to bring to the attention of your Commanding Officer.

Time limits

Service complaints normally have to be made within 3 months of the date of the last event that you are complaining about.

If you are out of time, your Commanding Officer is entitled to reject your complaint. You should still submit your complaint if you are out of time, but you will need to tell the Service Complaints Commissioner why you have been unable to raise a complaint sooner and, crucially, why you think it is fair for your complaint to be heard late.

Those who have left the forces may also complain about matters that occurred during their service, but the strict time limit will often make this very difficult.

Crucially, if a service complaint is filed correctly and in time, that should afford you 6 months from the date of the last incident to bring a claim in the employment tribunal, mentioned below. 

Your other legal rights

Bringing a service complaint can be a very time consuming but necessary process.

Unfortunately, service personnel often tell me that their complaints have not been resolved in their favour and they get frustrated by the length of investigations.

The Service Complaints Commissioner’s latest report suggests fundamental failings in the system and recommendations have been accepted that an Ombudsman, who would have power to decide complaints, should be appointed. There is as yet no date for the appointment.

Service complaints are not the only recourse that you may have to deal with bullying and harassment at work. You may also be entitled to bring civil claims for compensation in respect of:

  1. Discrimination – if you have been treated less favourably because, for example, your sex, race, orientation or religion, you could bring a claim in the employment tribunal. However, a strict time limit applies; you must issue a claim less than 6 months after the incident you are complaining about.  
  2. Harassment – if you have on more than one occasion been subjected to oppressive or unreasonable behaviour, you could issue a claim in the county or high court. You would have to issue a claim within 6 years of the harassment, but the sooner you take action the better, so that evidence can be gathered in support of your claim. 
  3. Negligence – if your employer/chain of command has failed to take reasonable steps to protect you from harm (including mental health problems) and you have suffered injury, you could issue a claim in the county or high court. The time limit is 3 years from the date on which a reasonable person would have known they had been injured by the action (or the failure to act). 

The temptation for some service personnel is to wait for the conclusion of their service complaint before bringing a claim in the employment tribunal, county or high court. But if you fail to issue any of these claims in time, you will lose your right to compensation.

Summary

  • You have to bring a service complaint within 3 months of any event that you are complaining about. 
  • Set out as much detail as possible in your service complaint form and attach any documents in support of your claims. 
  • If you are out of time to bring a service complaint, you must explain why you should be allowed to raise a complaint late. 
  • Whether your service complaint is successful or not, you may still have the right to bring claims for discrimination, negligence or harassment, but strict time limits may apply. 

Useful links

  • Here are links to the Service Complaint’s Commissioner’s website; the first provides more guidance on how to bring a service complaint:http://goo.gl/UccZLw, the second sets out the procedure after a service complaint has been raised: http://goo.gl/W7VmI1
  • Service complaints are governed by the rules and regulations set out in Joint Service Publication 831. An on line copy can be obtained here: