Complaints handling processes: Learnings from the Disability Royal Commission

A recent report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has provided crucial guidance for developing accessible, trauma-informed and person-focused complaints handling processes.

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (Disability Royal Commission) has recently published a Research Report titled Complaint mechanisms: Reporting pathways for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation (the Report).1 The Report provides guidance to the Disability Royal Commission on the design of effective, inclusive, and trauma-informed complaint mechanisms. As the Report concludes, care is required in designing complaints mechanisms as reporting pathways for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, to ensure that victim-survivors have access to fair and effective processes and outcomes.2

This article sets out some key findings of the Report for organisations to consider in designing their internal complaints mechanisms.

Note: This article uses person-first language (such as ‘person with disability’) in referring to people with disability where referencing or quoting from the Report. However, we acknowledge that many disabled people and advocates prefer the use of identity-first language (such as ‘disabled person’).

The Report, which surveyed over 80 complaint mechanisms nationally, concluded that “many complaint mechanisms are not necessarily equipped to provide justice in relation to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation”.3 Generally, an organisation’s internal complaints mechanism regulates the service and helps to maintain and enforce the organisation’s staff code of conduct. This may mean that the complaints mechanism is not victim-centred, and is not equipped to manage reports of abuse.

The Report indicates that in many cases, where a person with disability makes a complaint about violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, the person experiences a failure of justice in both the process undertaken and the outcome received.4

Complaints processes may be unjust where they are inaccessible, where they do not provide the person making the report with adequate information on their options and how they can be supported, where they do not provide for an impartial investigation of an allegation, and where they do not set out possible outcomes of a complaints process. The Report also identifies that a negative prior experience with a complaints process may prevent a person from reporting abuse.5

Although the Report advocates for broad systemic changes, including a national independent complaints framework, it also provides some useful guiding principles for organisations in reviewing their own internal complaints mechanisms. We have summarised some key takeaways for organisations below.

  • Consider providing a dedicated reporting pathway for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.6 It may not be appropriate to receive, manage and determine such reports in accordance with your internal complaints or grievances framework, which is generally created to address breaches of a code of conduct. It is also important that complaints handling processes are proportionate to the seriousness of the complaint. As the Report concluded, “a clear dedicated pathway for reporting violence and abuse sends a strong signal that these complaints have a level of seriousness and require different processes that go beyond other grievances about breaches of organisational codes and practice”.7
  • Ensure your reporting pathway interacts with and complements pathways for reporting to Police or otherwise responding to violence.8 This includes any obligatory reporting and whistle-blower pathways. A failure to clearly set out all of the options for making or responding to a report may hinder access to justice, and may inadvertently suggest that an organisation has discretion over whether a report should be escalated to Police. Providing information on a range of complaints and reporting pathways (internally and externally) will allow a person to make an informed decision.
  • Ensure that accessibility standards are applied effectively to your complaints or reporting frameworks.9 This includes by providing access to interpreting services, translated information, and easy-read language.
  • Provide support for decision making.10 If your organisation does not have the resources to support a person’s decision-making process, consider making a referral to a disability advocate.
  • Ensure complaints or reporting mechanisms are designed to afford just processes and outcomes, even where a complaint is not substantiated.11 This recognises the likelihood that a person making a complaint or report of violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation is making that complaint or report in good faith, even where there is insufficient evidence to substantiate allegations.
  • Ensure responses to complaints consider broader structural issues and inequalities.12 A person’s experience of abuse or reporting that abuse may be impacted by other factors, such as regional location, language, race, gender and sexuality.
  • Complaints mechanisms should allow for reporting and responding to historical abuse.13 Delays between abuse occurring and being reported can be significant, due to factors such as trauma, fear of consequences, and fear of being disbelieved.
  • Complaints mechanisms should set out potential outcomes of a complaint, where possible.14 This includes where a complaint or report is not substantiated. A lack of information regarding potential outcomes may be a barrier to a person making a report or complaint. Further, the Report recommends that a complaints framework set out the possible alternative outcomes if a person chooses makes a report to an external body (such as an Ombudsman or the Police).

Ultimately, the Report’s recommendations emphasise agency, accessibility, transparency and fairness for disabled people making reports of abuse, violence, neglect or exploitation.

How we can help

For assistance with developing a comprehensive and trauma-informed complaints process within your organisation, please get in touch with the Moores Safeguarding team. For more information on the scope and progress of the Disability Royal Commission, see our article: Update on the Disability Royal Commission: Safeguarding vulnerable Australians.

Contact us

Please contact us for more detailed and tailored help.

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1 – Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, Research Report – Complaint mechanisms Reporting pathways for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, 8 November 2022.2 – Ibid, 3.3 – Ibid, 4.4 – Ibid, 190.5 – Ibid, 191.6 – Ibid, 192.7 – Ibid, 192.8 – Ibid, 192.9 – Ibid, 193.10 – Ibid, 193.11 – Ibid, 193.12 – Ibid, 191.13 – Ibid, 193-194.14 – Ibid, 194.