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How to make complaints against the Home Office

How to make complaints against the Home Office

Bill Gates once said that your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning. If the same applies to the Home Office staff who have the unenviable job of fielding complaints about their colleagues from irate migrants and their lawyers, their enlightenment must rival that of any Renaissance polymath.

This article discusses how to make complaints to the Home Office about immigration issues.

Is a complaint the best way of proceeding?

In an alternate universe where the Home Office had not taken every possible step to insulate its staff from the unspeakable trauma that is receiving a politely worded email from a legal representative, formal complaints would be much rarer. Our complete inability to reach Home Office caseworkers means that lodging a complaint is sometimes the only way to contact someone when a problem arises.

Where the rarest of miracles does occur, and you have an open line of communication with the relevant caseworker, this is usually the best place to direct any queries. Similarly, if the complaint concerns a finalised immigration decision, this should generally be resolved by appealing the decision or challenging it by way of administrative review.

When is a complaint helpful?

Home Office guidance defines a complaint as “any expression of dissatisfaction that needs a response about the service we provide, or about the professional conduct of our staff and contractors”. It refers to the following “headings”, or categories, of complaints:

  • Delay (e.g. in delivery of a service).
  • Administrative/process error (failings in the process, administrative error, poor service or failure to meet service standards).
  • Poor communication (failure to keep customers informed; failure to answer correspondence, return calls etc.)
  • Wrong information (provision of poor, misleading, inadequate or incorrect advice).
  • Lost documents (e.g. passports or birth certificates submitted by customers that have been mislaid).
  • Queues.
  • Damage.
  • Customer care – physical environment (complaints relating to tangible, physical aspects of the service such as access, up to date equipment and accommodation as well as the ease and convenience with which it can be used).
  • Customer care – availability of service (loss of access to services, for example IT or other equipment breakdown).
  • Customer care – provision for minors (failure to take the needs of children into account).
  • Customer care – complaint handling (failure to respond to a complaint or dissatisfaction with the response)

This is a non-exhaustive list. There are as many reasons for lodging a complaint as there are paragraphs in the Immigration Rules so I will give just a few examples from personal experience.

Perhaps you have requested the return of your documents but there are still documents missing. Or you are waiting for a decision and an ungodly period of time has passed. Many lawyers also use the complaints procedure to chase up Immigration Health Surcharge refunds. Similarly, in some cases it might be appropriate to make a complaint about being charged the wrong amount of IHS, although this is something that can also be flagged in a covering letter.

As mentioned above, where the basis of the complaint is an incorrect decision, it is usually more appropriate to challenge it by way of an appeal or administrative review. However, there will be times where a complaint may be more appropriate. For example, a decision granting someone leave to remain in the UK on a ten-year route to settlement, even though you had varied the application to request a five-year route before the decision was made, and it is clear that the five-year route was not considered at all.

A formal complaint should not be made lightly but where there is no suitable alternative for resolving the issue or where you simply wish to complain about poor service, there is no need to shy away from making the complaint.

How do I make a complaint?

The UK Visas and Immigration complaints procedure gives two options for lodging a complaint:

1. Email: complaints@homeoffice.gov.uk

2. Online form: https://www.gov.uk/complain-uk-visas-immigration

UKVI is not currently accepting complaints by post because of the pandemic.

The complaint should ideally be made within three months of the problem being complained about unless there are exceptional circumstances. But in my experience, at least, it is rare for the Home Office to dismiss a complaint for being made after three months.

There are separate complaints procedures for:

How do I draft the complaint?

Every complaint is different but here are some tips for getting started:

  • Begin by stating the applicant’s name, date of birth, nationality and, if you want to be particularly helpful, any Home Office reference numbers you might have. If the complaint is about an application, it is helpful to include the Unique Application Number (UAN) or the Global Web Form (GWF) number.
  • Don’t include more than one applicant in the complaint (unless they’re dependants or the applications are linked in some other way).
  • Unless the case history is irrelevant, begin the complaint by laying it out in a clear, chronological order. If only a few dates are relevant, list those.
  • Once you have provided any relevant history, state the main issue you are complaining about as clearly as possible.
  • If you are complaining about more than one issue, have separate headings for each one and take a bit of time to particularise each point of complaint so, insofar as possible, they do not overlap.
  • Clearly state what you would like the Home Office to do to resolve the complaint.
  • If applicable, refer to the relevant Immigration Rules or any other relevant source of law but only do this when absolutely necessary and avoid quoting long sections of text if you can.
  • Whatever you do, do not use offensive or disparaging language. It is absolutely fine to make it clear that something the Home Office did was inappropriate or unacceptable but you will get further by remaining calm and detached.
  • Unless you are emailing from an account that has your contact details in your signature, include your contact information.
  • As a general rule, which applies to all professional correspondence, don’t send an email angry. If you are feeling upset when you write the complaint, save it as a draft and return to it when you are feeling more composed.

What happens next?

The Home Office aims to respond to all complaints within 20 working days. Its target, or “service standard”, is to respond to 95% of complaints within this period. A recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that this target was routinely missed.

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The response should say whether or not the complaint is upheld (or partially upheld). If the complaint requires the Home Office to take action, and it is upheld, the response will generally say what action will be taken.

If you are unhappy with the outcome, details of how you can ask for an internal review of your complaint by a more senior member of staff will be provided. If this proves unhelpful, and you still wish to pursue the complaint, the next step is to contact the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

To do so, you must go through your MP, who will refer the complaint to the Ombudsman. You must also have tried the Home Office’s complaint procedure so it is important to do this first.

The Ombudsman has the power to ask the Home Office to take action to put their mistakes right, including paying compensation if the complainant has been left out of pocket, and to improve its services to avoid similar mistakes being repeated in the future. It does not have the power to force the Home Office to pay compensation in the same way as a tribunal or court, or force it to change its policies.

My eternal thanks to Philip Turpin of Turpin Miller for teaching me to never send an email angry.

Alex Piletska is a solicitor at Turpin & Miller, an Oxford-based specialist immigration firm where she has worked since 2017. Alex undertakes a wide range of immigration work, including family migration, Points Based System applications, appeals and Judicial Review. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexinlaw.

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