Timescales for acknowledging, investigating and responding to complaints


MDU medico-legal adviser Dr Peter Connell looks at the timelines involved when acknowledging and responding to complaints.

A patient who complains to your practice has 12 months from the date on which the matter they are complaining about first happened, or when they first became aware of it, to make their complaint. In responding, practices don't have this luxury. The NHS complaints procedure sets out timescales for acknowledging, investigating and responding to complaints, and they differ in the four countries of the UK.

Acknowledging a complaint

The regulations require primary care practices to acknowledge receipt of a complaint within:

  • three working days in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland 
  • two working days in Wales.

Responding to the complaint

In England, there are no time limits set for responding to a complaint but if a response is not provided within six months from the date of the complaint, the practice must write to the complainant to explain the delay.

In Wales, a full response should be sent to the complainant within 30 working days of receipt of the complaint. If it is not possible to complete the investigation within this timescale, you should inform the complainant of the reason for the delay and when they can expect to receive a reply.

In Scotland, you are obliged to confirm that the complaint will be investigated within 20 working days or explain why you won't be able to do so. If there is a delay you should tell the complainant when they may expect a response.

In Northern Ireland, the investigation should normally be completed within 10 working days but if this is not possible you need to explain why to the complainant and tell them when they will receive a response.

Responses outside the time limits

These time limits may occasionally be impossible to achieve. For example, if the member of staff involved in the complaint goes on leave on the day the complaint is received, it may not be feasible to carry out a full investigation within the expected timeframe.

Whatever timescales apply in the area where your practice is based, it is essential that all complaints are answered within a reasonably prompt period of time, but without compromising the quality of the response.

In the MDU's experience, a complex complaint which involves a number of doctors or healthcare professionals that belong to different defence organisations, Royal Colleges or trades unions could mean inevitable delays. When a delay occurs, it is important that you inform the complainant of the reasons for the delay and when you expect to get in touch with them.

Usually, the complainant is anxious to receive a prompt response and our members are anxious to resolve complaints at the earliest opportunity. However, it is most important that the quality of the response is not compromised by undue haste in carrying out the investigation.

When a patient complains after 12 months

Sometimes, a patient will complain about an incident that happened, or which they became aware of, more than 12 months before the date of their complaint. The regulations state that you should consider a complaint made outside that time limit if the complainant has good reason for complaining, despite the delay, it is still possible to investigate the complaint fairly and effectively.

Since it will probably be impossible to recall the events that gave rise to the complaint accurately after such a long time, you can only rely on the medical records, and what your standard practice was at the time. The staff involved with the complaint may have left the practice, and may be untraceable. In these situations, it is expected that you make reasonable attempts to contact the individuals. If you are unable to do so you can only respond on the basis of the entries in the medical records and what you believe was their standard practice.

Call our medico-legal advice line

Our medico-legal team are on hand to advise you with queries regarding dealing with complaints. Call 0800 716 646 or email us at advisory@themdu.com

Lines are open 9am-5pm Monday to Friday. We provide an on-call service for medico-legal emergencies or urgent queries 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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This page was correct at publication on . Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.