Posted: Tuesday 17 April 2012

New research paves the way for different approach to ‘querulous’ complainers

Increasingly organisations, in both the public and private sectors, come into contact with people who make unusually persistent complaints about organisations, services and individuals.

This small group, known as 'querulous complainers', can consume a disproportionate amount of an organisation's resources, pursuing what they believe are legitimate complaints, for longer and with more intensity than the majority of the population would consider reasonable.

New research published today [17 April 2012] by the Police Complaints Commissioner for Scotland suggests that it may be possible to identify at an early stage those who are likely to become querulous.

If it is possible to identify signs of querulousness at the outset, or very early in the complaints process, this could act as a trigger for bodies, such as the police, to actively manage the individual in a way that is most likely to achieve the best possible, most realistic outcome for everyone involved.

More often than not a querulous complainer will be male, in the 30-50 age bracket, and will demonstrate challenging behaviours ranging from anger and aggression to threats of harm to self and others. They can also be dishonest or misleading in the facts they present, give forceful instructions on how they believe their complaint should be handled and have unrealistic expectations of what the complaints department can achieve. Failure to gain the desired result with one agency can lead them to take their complaint to other agencies where they start the complaint cycle again.

The research, which was carried by the School of Forensic Mental Health, used anonymised data from 60 complainers, 20 identified by experienced complaint handlers within PCCS as 'querulous', 20 as 'persistent' and a further 20 as a 'control' group to record evidence of 'early' and 'late' signs of querulousness. [see notes to editors 1]

They uncovered a number of signals of potential querulousness in early written communication, which is more likely to be by email. These included use of dramatic or emotional language and of excessive or irrelevant information contained in communications. Later in the complaints process multiple capitals, repeated underlining, inappropriate use of medical or legal terminology and comments in the margins were used. 

Frequently the content and tone of these communications was suggestive of high levels of frustration or anger on the part of the complainant. Such bursts of 'rapid fire' communication were characteristic of many of the querulants.

The research also found that a querulous complainer is more likely to contact other individuals and organisations regarding their complaint, typically Government Ministers, senior politicians, judges and the media. They are also more likely to record meetings or telephone calls and hang up during phone calls.

Commenting on the research Professor John McNeill, the Police Complaints Commissioner for Scotland said:
"There is a careful balance to be struck between the individual's right to complain and have that complaint investigated thoroughly, and a situation where a disproportionate amount of time and resources are directed towards trying to satisfy often unreasonable or unrealistic expectations, sometimes at the expense of the majority of service users."

The report concludes that complaints agencies or those being complained about are highly unlikely to create a querulous complainer; rather their behaviour is the result of a long and complex process, which may be precipitated or exacerbated by the way that complaints are handled.

Professor Lindsay Thomson of the School of Forensic Mental Health said:
"As mental health professionals and as researchers we are concerned to find ways of preventing and alleviating the distress of individuals who may find themselves in prolonged conflict with a public body, and of reducing the burden on complaints departments. Our findings will assist in the development of training and management programmes for this."

Professor McNeill again:
"Ultimately, I would like to see a response model that combines both preventive and reactive elements that the police can use when managing this group of people, as well as a mechanism for effective management of case closure."

The PCCS will shortly commission work on the development of a screening tool and a training package, that will include workshops involving complaint scenarios, which it will offer to police and civilian staff involved in handling complaints from the public.

Read the full report

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