Fishing News Article – RIGHT TO COMPLAIN – When to make a complaint against a Marine Authority

Fishing News has been the voice of the fishing industry since 1913, bringing the latest news and features about the UK and Irish commercial fishing to the industry.  Bartons Marine Department were delighted to be invited to write a number of legal based articles for the publication, which we are pleased to reproduce one of them below:


“Marine lawyer, Alistair Tawse, explains when a complaint might be justified, and how best to go about it

Public authorities, government agencies and local authorities all perform tasks carried out in the public interest or in the exercise of powers which are vested in them by law.

This applies to the key authorities in the fishing industry:  the MMO (a non-departmental public body, sponsored by DEFRA); the MCA (an executive agency of the DfT); and the IFCAs (which are committees of local authorities).

All three work hard across their various roles to save lives, protect our marine environment, and support economic growth.

However, as livelihoods and businesses are directly affected when these authorities use their powers, it is important for there to be in place a system to assist these organisations to review their performance and their decisions.

Complaints have a proper place in any regulatory system.  Complaints can provide an organisation with insight from another perspective; they can provide the basis for training and initiate improvements; they are a means of ensuring accountability.

Whereas other mechanisms for review (such as the judicial review process) will often require legal expertise, a complaint can be made without legal representation.

When should a complaint be made?

In most cases, it will be reasonable to make a complaint if you consider you have been treated unfairly or have received poor service, in which case the complaints process can be a useful way for both sides to explain and understand each other’s viewpoint.

You should have a valid reason.  Formal complaints should not be made without proper grounds.  Repeated complaints should be avoided, as this could unfairly burden the authority and divert time and resources away from their essential functions.

A public body will often publish standards by which it measures its own performance, and this can be useful to check whether a complaint is justified.

You should not make a complaint if you are still within an appeal process, of if the issue is (or has been) the subject of court proceedings.  If you are facing prosecution, seeking compensation, or wanting to challenge a decision, it is probably best to seek legal advice before sending a complaint.

If you wish to challenge the way in which a public authority has reached a decision, you may need to consider bringing judicial review proceedings.  More about this will covered in a future article but it is important to note that judicial review is a legal process, which needs to be issued at court no more than 3 months after the relevant decision or action.  Applications after this period are likely to be time-barred.  You should seek advice from a solicitor, if this is being considered.

How to make a complaint

Do not leave it too long after the event to make a complaint.

Check and follow the procedure which is relevant to that authority.  You will probably find their complaints process online.  There is usually a tiered process.

For example, the MCA has a clear process, summarised as follows:

  • Step 1 – Get in touch with the person or section that you have been dealing with.
  • Step 2 – If the complaint is unresolved, write to the MCA’s Chief Executive.
  • Step 3 – If you still believe the complaint has not been handled properly, ask the MCA to refer the matter to an Independent Complaints Assessor (‘ICA’) appointed by the DfT.

The MMO has a very similar process, but their Stage 3 refers complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Complaints against the conduct of an IFCA should be directed, in the first place, to the Chair of the IFCA.  If the response is considered unsatisfactory, the complaint can be directed to the sponsoring body in the relevant local authority, and, as a final step, to the Local Government Ombudsman.

Content of a complaint letter

Here are some tips for structuring a formal and effective complaint:

  • Put it in writing, either by email or letter.  Make sure it is addressed to the right person.  If you send a letter, retain a copy.
  • Give it a title, e.g. ‘Formal Complaint’, so there is no doubt as to how you would like your letter to be dealt with.
  • Provide a succinct summary of the circumstances leading up to the event or decision.
  • Provide a list of key events and dates, in chronological order.
  • Include the names (if known) of the people who you dealt with, and state when any meetings or conversations took place.
  • Identify and narrow down the specific points that you are complaining about.  Set these out using numbered bullet points.
  • Avoid rambling or ‘venting’.  Keep the letter as short as possible.
  • Be respectful.  Try not to make it emotional and do not be offensive.
  • State what outcome you are looking to achieve.
  • You might want to ask someone to look over the letter, before you send it.

Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that giving positive feedback can be as useful as a complaint.  So, if you have received a good service from the public authority, let them know!”

For more information about anything mentioned in the above article please contact our Marine Lawyer Alistair Tawes.