Introduction to the NHS complaints procedure in Northern Ireland

Covering the basics of the Northern Irish NHS and social care complaints procedure.

The overarching NHS and social care complaints procedure applies to all NHS bodies in Northern Ireland, as set out in Complaints in Health and Social Care: Standards and Guidelines for Resolution and Learning

The above applies to all dental settings providing NHS services, but general dental practitioners must also consider their requirements under Northern Ireland GDS regulations.


The purpose of the complaints procedure is to address complainants' concerns in order to resolve complaints and identify changes that might be needed to improve the care provided.

Patients in Northern Ireland, or their representatives, can raise a complaint about their NHS care within six months of the incident. Where the complainant became aware of the cause for complaint later than this, the period is either six months from the date of knowledge or 12 months from the date of the incident, whichever is shorter. However, we advise you to consider accepting complaints after this time so they can be managed locally.

Your responsibilities

  • Principle 5 of the GDC's Standards for the Dental Team requires all dental settings to have a clear and effective complaint procedure.
  • NHS dental service providers, including independent contractors, must comply with the NHS regulations by having a patient complaint procedure available, that complies with the legislation.
  • All staff must have a good understanding of the complaints procedure and know how to handle and respond to complaints and concerns.
  • The service must have clear arrangements in place to provide leadership and a clear line of accountability for responding to complaints.
  • A responsible person - often a senior manager or practice principal - should ensure the service complies with the procedure. There must also be a complaints manager, who is accessible to the public.

Resolving complaints

The complaints procedure has two stages.

  1. Local resolution:
    1. you should acknowledge complaints within three working days
    2. you should investigate and respond within 10 working days.
  2. Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.

Key principles:

  • Complaints can be made orally or in writing.
  • Oral complaints must be recorded (or at least summarised) in writing.
  • A copy of the written record must be sent to the complainant.

Certain oral complaints might be able to be resolved on the spot by front-line staff, in which case further action under the complaints procedure is unnecessary. While the regulations state that all complaints must referred to the complaints manager, HSC guidance refers to discussion with complaints manager to identify complaints that could be readily resolved and not require formal investigation.

Disciplinary action

The complaints procedure does not have a disciplinary function, but a complaint can result in disciplinary action. Where disciplinary action is contemplated against a dental professional who is also the subject of a complaint, the two processes should be treated entirely separately.

Negligence claims

NHS regulations may require a complaint to be stopped if there is a claim for negligence. If you're a DDU member in this situation, contact us for advice.

Recording and reporting

The complaints manager should keep an up-to-date log of all complaints and how they were responded to. This should be recorded in a separate complaints file, not as part of patients' clinical records.

Practices must send a quarterly report on complaints to their local HSC Board. It must contain the number of complaints received, how many were considered to be well-founded, and how many were referred to the ombudsman.

Learning from complaints

All practices must have formal mechanisms in place to allow complaints to drive learning and improvement.

If there is a serious complaint, or a recurring theme in the subject matter of multiple complaints, then an investigation should be carried out. A report should include:

  • a summary of the subject matter of the complaint(s), excluding confidential information and confined to details of the nature of the complaint(s)
  • any matters of general importance arising from the complaints, (such as lessons learned), or from the way in which they were handled
  • improvements to services made as a result of the complaint.

How can we help?

The DDU has extensive experience in assisting members with complaints, and we're happy to advise, assist and support at any stage of the complaints procedure.

For individual advice, call the DDU's advice line on 0800 374 626 or visit our guide on what to do if you've received a complaint.

This page was correct at publication on 16/03/2022. 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.