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Complaints and legal action against the police

This advice applies to Scotland

How to complain about the police 

You can complain about:

  • police officers or staff - including cadets and special constables
  • the quality of service in your area 
  • police policies and procedures - you could also contact your local MSP, MP or community involvement officer. 

You can complain about police conduct. The  conduct could be on or off duty. You might complain about conduct like:

  • disorderly or rude behaviour 
  • failing to carry out their duties as a police officer 
  • making false, misleading or inaccurate statements 
  • unlawful or unnecessary arrests
  • unnecessary force
  • losing or damaging property 
  • breaking the law
  • breaching your human rights or discriminating against you.

For example, you could complain if you were stopped and searched but you don’t think the police officer followed the search procedure. More about stop and search.

You won't get financial compensation if you complain. You could ask for an apology or for an officer to be retrained or disciplined. You might be able to take legal action or claim compensation.  

Police complaints are very serious. You can be charged with wasting police time if you make a false or malicious complaint. The police officer could take action against you for defamation of character. It will help if you have evidence and witnesses to support your complaint. 

Who can complain

You can complain if you are directly or indirectly affected by police action, or you witnessed it.

You can still complain about police action if there are criminal proceedings against you. 

Someone else can complain for you, with your consent. For example, a solicitor, MSP, friend or parent. 

How to complain

You should complain to Police Scotland

To complain about a senior police officer, like a Chief Constable, you should complain to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

It's best to complain in writing so that you have a record of the complaint. An adviser at your local Citizens Advice Bureau can help you to write your complaint.

What happens after you complain

The police will investigate your complaint. Find out how complaints are handled by Police Scotland .

The police may decide to:

  • take no further action
  • review or change a policy, process or procedure 
  • apologise
  • give officers more training, counselling or advice 
  • discipline an officer

You should be told the outcome of the investigation as soon as possible. You may only be told about the outcome in a general way as the investigation is confidential. These confidential documents cannot be used in any subsequent legal actions for damages against the police. 

If you're unhappy with how your complaint was handled

You can refer the issue to the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC) for a complaint handling review. This is free and independent.

You should do this within 3 months of the date you got the result of your original complaint. 

The PIRC does not investigate the substance of a complaint. The Commissioner's role is to review the way that the complaint was handled by the police. After investigating the complaint, the Commissioner can tell a police body to reconsider the complaint.

You can request a review on the PIRC website.

If you want to complain about how the PIRC has handled the review, such as unreasonable delays, you can use the PIRC internal complaints process. There is information about internal complaints on the PIRC website.

Taking your complaint to the ombudsman

If this does not resolve the issue, you can take the complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO). 

If you are not satisfied with the decision of the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner, you might be able to ask for a judicial review.

You might be able to take legal action and/or claim compensation.

If you think a police officer has broken the law

If you believe that a police officer has broken the law, whether on duty or off duty, you can:

  • complain to Police Scotland - the officer could be disciplined or, in rare cases, prosecuted
  • ask for a criminal investigation - by contacting the Procurator Fiscal.

If you were injured in a violent crime, you could also claim compensation. 

Asking for a criminal investigation

The Procurator Fiscal is independent of the police. You can report a police officer to your local Procurator Fiscal

The Fiscal might decide:

  • not to prosecute - the Fiscal will refer the case back to the police to decide if the officer should be disciplined
  • to report the case to the Crown Office - this is the headquarters of the Fiscal service, which decides whether to prosecute the police officer. The Fiscal's office will tell you what the Crown Office decides.

If there is a prosecution, you might have to go to court to give evidence. Find out more about going to court as a witness on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website.

If you're not happy with how your complaint was dealt with by the Fiscal, or aren't happy with their decision, you can write directly to the Area Procurator Fiscal or to the Lord Advocate. The Lord Advocate can be contacted at: 

Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service
25 Chambers Street
Edinburgh
EH1 1LA

Tel: 0300 020 3000
Email: _EnquiryPoint@copfs.gov.uk
Website: www.copfs.gov.uk

If the police caused you distress or injury 

You can:

  • complain to Police Scotland
  • claim compensation - from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA)
  • take legal action for damages in court. 

You can start a claim for both compensation and court action for damages. However, if you win damages at court, you will have to repay your compensation to CICA.

Claiming from CICA is simpler than suing the police for damages because you won't have to go to court. However, the court can award more in damages to cover other losses, like damage to your belongings.

Claiming compensation from CICA

If you were injured in an alleged assault by the police, you can apply for compensation from the CICA. 

You don't need to have your complaint against the police upheld before claiming compensation. But your claim will be stronger if your complaint has been investigated and upheld.

Find out more about claiming compensation for violent crimes on GOV.UK.

You can take court action against the police for damages if a police officer has done something against the law, or failed to do something. However, these cases are rarely successful.

You should get advice from a solicitor. Your legal costs might be more than the amount of damages you would get. You might be eligible for legal aid, but you may have to pay a contribution towards the expenses of the case.

More about help with legal costs and using a solicitor

If your human rights were breached or you have been discriminated against

The police must respect your human rights when they carry out their duties.

You might be able to take legal action against the police if your human rights have been breached. More about taking legal action about human rights.

Discrimination 

The police cannot discriminate against you because of a protected characteristic you have, like your age, disability, race or sex.

For example, it's unlawful if:

  • an officer treats you less favourably because of your race
  • an officer doesn't treat a crime seriously because of your gender or sexual orientation
  • the conditions in police custody create unnecessary difficulties for you if you have a disability.

If you have been discriminated against you could:

You can also contact the Equality and Advisory Support Service helpline. 

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS) Helpline (England, Wales and Scotland)

Telephone: 0808 800 0082
Text relay: 0808 800 0084
Monday to Friday, 9am to 7pm
Saturday, 10am to 2pm

FREEPOST
EASS Helpline
FPN4431

Website: www.equalityadvisoryservice.com/app/home

Asking for information the police holds about you

You can make a 'subject access request' to get a copy of information that the police holds about you.

You can find out how to make a request on the Police Scotland website.

The police can refuse to give you some information, including other people's data or data about investigations. 

If you're unhappy with how your request has been dealt with, you can contact the Information Commissioner. The Commissioner can investigate if your request was dealt with correctly.

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