It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that a report released on 11th July 2019 revealed that complaints to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman increased by 15% in the last year. This was the third successive year in which complaints to the Ombudsman have increased.
There is therefore a clear upward trend in the number of complaints being made about health and social care, education and housing, as well as local councils, government departments and agencies in NI. One explanation for the increasing numbers of complaints being made, may be the passing of the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016. This legislation made it easier for the public to complain and expanded the remit of the Ombudsman to allow for the investigation of complaints across the whole of the education sector in NI.
The area which has again attracted most complaints in 2018-19, was health and social care. Complaints regarding delays in care and medical treatment, misdiagnosis and poor communication with patients and their families, as well as eligibility for continuing healthcare, represented 40% of all complaints received. This is a trend which is reflected in our practice. Over the past year, we have seen increasing numbers of clients seeking advice about poor and substandard medical treatment. Queries commonly include delays or mistakes in diagnosis, surgical errors, and failures to properly and fully inform patients of the risks involved in treatment options so that informed consent can be given. In many cases, client’s concerns are entirely justified, and expert evidence is obtained to support a case of clinical negligence against the relevant Trust.
Approximately 12% of complaints last year related to Education matters. Again, this is a trend we have experienced in practice. The demand for the specialist advice we provide in this area was so great last year, that we ran a Special Educational Needs drop-in Clinic for parents concerned that their child was not receiving the support necessary to ensure their educational requirements were met. The baby boom in 2008 may have contributed to the situation, with school places and resources being increasingly stretched.
The figures contained in the Public Services Ombudsman’s report should also be considered in the context of the current political situation. We have had no government to make strategic healthcare or educational reform decisions for 2 and a half years. Perhaps the situation will improve with the much hoped for re-establishment of the Assembly but in the meantime it appears likely that complaints to NIPSO will continue to increase.
Nikki McConnell is a Partner in the Litigation Department at Worthingtons Solicitors and can be contacted on 028 91 811538 or by email [email protected].
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