Unreasonable customer behaviour

We aim to ensure that we have given you the opportunity to express your views and opinions.

We will listen and give appropriate thought and effort to resolving and explaining the Council’s position and actions. However, occasionally we encounter individuals who demonstrate unreasonable behaviour, which can result in unnecessarily excessive demands on the Council’s time and resources.

Whilst most customers contact the Council in a fair and reasonable way, unfortunately, in a small number of cases people pursue their complaints or requests for information in a way that is unreasonable. In some instances, this can have a negative impact on the handling of their complaint or request. It can also have a significant impact on our resources and on our ability to provide services to our other customers.

What is an unreasonable complainant or customer behaviour?

We define unreasonable complainants as:

Unreasonable customers or complainants are those persons who, because of the nature or frequency of their contacts with the Council, negatively impact our ability to deal effectively with their, or other people’s complaints."

Unreasonable behaviour may include one or two isolated incidents; as well as unreasonably persistent behaviour, which is usually an accumulation of incidents or behaviour over a long period.

We differentiate between “persistent” customers/complainants and “unreasonably persistent” customers/complainants.

Customers making a complaint can be “persistent” where they feel that we have not dealt with their complaint properly and are not prepared to accept that matters have concluded or leave the matter alone.

It is reasonable for a customer to criticise how their complaint is being handled when our published procedures have not been followed correctly. Some customers may have justified complaints or requests but may pursue them in inappropriate ways.

This could be by lengthy phone calls, emails expecting immediate responses, detailed letters or emails every few days. Others may pursue complaints, information from our services or information requests which have no substance, or that we have already considered and dealt with. Their contacts with us may be amicable, but they still place very heavy demands on staff.

Situations can escalate, and in a few cases, customers can become abusive, offensive, threatening or behave in a way that is unacceptable. In these circumstances, we may have to restrict access to our premises or staff, in accordance with our Fair Treatment at Work Policy and Zero Tolerance Statement to protect officers from harassment and/or harm.

Examples of unreasonable behaviour

Examples of what we might consider being unreasonable behaviour are shown below. The list is not exhaustive, nor does one single feature on its own necessarily imply that the customer or complainant should be considered as acting in an unreasonable way:

  • refusing to specify the grounds of a complaint, despite offers of assistance
  • changing the basis of the complaint/request as the matter progresses
  • denying or changing statements made at an earlier stage in the complaints process
  • covertly recording meetings and conversations
  • submitting falsified documents from themselves or others
  • making excessive demands on the time and resources of staff with lengthy phone calls, emails to numerous council staff, or detailed letters every few days, and expecting immediate responses
  • refusing to accept a decision and repeatedly arguing points with no new evidence
  • persistently approaching the Council through different routes about the same issue
  • causing distress to staff. This could include the use of hostile, threatening abusive or offensive language, or an unreasonable fixation on an individual member of staff
  • making unjustified complaints about staff who are trying to deal with the issues and seeking to have them replaced

What is a vexatious request?

We define a vexatious request as:

A request that is likely to cause distress, disruption or irritation, without any proper or justified cause."

A vexatious request often, but not always, relates to a request for information made under the Freedom of Information Act or Environmental Information Regulations and may include one or two individual requests for information or may form part of a wider pattern of vexatious behaviour. For example, if there is a wider dispute, or it is the latest in a lengthy series of overlapping requests.

We will not automatically refuse a request simply because it is made in the context of a dispute, or if it forms part of a series of requests. We will consider each request for information on its own merits, and we will not automatically refuse a request because the individual may have caused problems in the past. We will ensure that we consider whether the request (and not the requester) is vexatious, with our focus being on the request itself.

Where a request is considered to be vexatious, we may make the decision not to provide the information requested and refer the person to the Information Commissioner’s Office

Examples of vexatious requests

Examples of what we might consider being vexatious requests are shown below. Again, the list is not exhaustive, and for a request to be considered as vexatious it is likely that more than one of the examples will be relevant:

  • submission of requests with a very high volume and frequency of correspondence
  • requests for information the requester has already seen, or clear intention to reopen issues that have already been considered
  • instances, where a requester has received a response but continues to ask further questions which they do not accept, should be dealt with as a new request 
  • complying with the request would impose a significant burden on the Council in terms of expense, and negatively impact our ability to provide services to others. In this situation, we will also consider section 12 (exemption where the cost exceeds the appropriate limit) of the Freedom of Information Act.
  • where the requester states that the request is actually meant to cause maximum inconvenience, disruption, or annoyance. In such cases, a section 14 exemption (does not oblige a public authority to comply with a request for information if the request is vexatious) may be considered
  • where the request lacks any serious purpose or value. An apparent lack of value would not usually be enough on its own to make a request vexatious but may do when considered with other examples
  • harassing the Council. This could include a very high volume and frequency of correspondence or mixing requests with accusations and complaints

Considerations before action

We recognise that the decision to classify someone’s behaviour as unreasonable or to classify a request for information as vexatious could have serious consequences for the individual, including restricting their access to services.

Before deciding to apply any restrictions, we will ensure that:

  • the complaint or request for information has been dealt with properly and in line with the relevant procedures and statutory guidelines
  • subject to what is set out above, we have responded to the request for information, responded to several service-level enquiries on the matter concerned and/or tried to resolve the complaint through our complaints process

However, where our efforts to resolve matters with the customer have not been successful, we may close the case or request. Where appropriate we will advise the customer to contact the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman or the Information Commissioner’s Office. We will advise the customer that we will no longer enter into any correspondence about such cases unless new and pertinent information becomes available.

The Deputy Director of the relevant service area (or Director in their absence) is responsible for deciding if a customer should be classified as unreasonable or vexatious. Each decision will be evidence-based and made on its own individual merits.

Options for action

Restrictions will be tailored to deal with an individual’s circumstances and may include one or more of the following (the list is not exhaustive):

  • placing limits on the number and duration of contacts with staff per week or month
  • offering a restricted time slot for necessary calls
  • limiting the customer to one method of contact (telephone, letter, email and so on)
  • requiring the customer to communicate only with one named member of staff
  • requiring any personal contacts to take place in the presence of a witness and in a suitable location
  • refusing to register and process further complaints/requests about the same matter
  • requiring the customer to make contact by telephone only through a third party such as a solicitor/ Councillor/ friend acting on their behalf 
  • requiring any personal contacts to take place on a particular day and at a specified time
  • limiting or regulating the customer’s use of the council’s services e.g., libraries or leisure centres
  • refusing the customer access to any council building except by appointment
  • informing the customer that any further contact about the relevant complaint, service topic or freedom of information request will not be acknowledged, and they will not receive a reply.

When the decision has been taken to classify a customer’s behaviour as unreasonable or to classify a request as vexatious, the Deputy Director (or Director) will write to the customer to outline the following:

  • detail what action we have taken and why we have felt it necessary to take this action
  • explain what it means for the customer regarding any future contact with the Council 
  • advise how long the restrictions will last and when the decision will be reviewed
  • enclose a copy of this procedure for the customer’s information

A copy of the vexatious/unreasonable letter that has been sent to the individual will be circulated to officers within the relevant department and elsewhere were appropriate to inform staff of this decision. This is particularly necessary in instances where the individual concerned has been given a single point of contact or has been contacting several officers from different service areas. 

The Council also keeps a central log of all customers who have been made vexatious, which will be available to all services and will be circulated to services every month to ensure any such arrangements are properly maintained and followed.


When any restrictions are put in place, a review date will be set. This will be based on the circumstances of the case and could be for a period of three months or longer depending on the severity of the situation.

The relevant Deputy Director or Director will review the vexatious status of a customer on or before the review date. The decision to revise or maintain the restrictions put in place will be based on the customer’s behaviour during the period when limits were placed upon them. The Deputy Director or Director will write to the individual concerned to advise them of their decision and the reasons why it has been made.

New complaints or requests for information

We will continue to deal with service requests, complaints, and requests for information about different subjects from any customer who we have classified as unreasonable/vexatious.

We will treat any new service requests, new complaints, or requests for information from people who we have classified on their own merits. The Deputy Director or Director of the relevant service area will decide whether any restrictions we have applied before are still appropriate and necessary in relation to the new complaint or request. If we decide that the restrictions should apply to the new request, service contact or request for information we will write to the individual to explain why we have taken this decision.

Enquiries to Members

This policy may be applied to individuals who repeatedly contact Members about the same matter, despite having received a reply or several replies. It may also be applied in circumstances where an individual has exhausted the Council’s complaints process and is continually seeking assistance from their ward Councillor even though the Councillor has already assisted them as far as they are able.

In such instances, the Member may approach the Council to request that this policy is applied to the individual concerned. Each request will be reviewed on its own merit. If the Council agrees to adopt this policy the Deputy Director of the relevant service will write to the individual involved in the manner set out above.

Referring cases to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and Information Commissioner’s Office

There may be exceptional circumstances where the relationship between us and a customer has broken down to a point where a resolution is not possible. In these cases, we will attempt to complete our complaints procedure and end contact with the individual concerned. If this becomes necessary, we will advise the customer of the reasons for this and the options open to them.

In some instances, we may find it necessary to liaise with the Ombudsman or Information Commissioner’s Office and ask them to consider a case before it has exhausted our complaints/FOI process. It will be entirely at the discretion of the Ombudsman or Information Commission whether they accept the referral.

Appendix A: Definitions

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and Information Commissioner’s Office

The Ombudsman’s definition of an unreasonable complainant:

Unreasonable and unreasonably persistent complainants are those complainants who, because of the nature or frequency of their contacts with an organisation, hinder the organisation’s consideration of their, or other people’s, complaints."

Information Commissioner’s Office

We have adopted the Information Commissioners Office guidance on ‘Vexatious and Repeated Requests’ as the basis for our definition:

Deciding whether a request is vexatious is a flexible balancing exercise, taking into account all the circumstances of the case. There is no rigid test or definition, and it will often be easy to recognise. The key question is whether the request is likely to cause distress, disruption, or irritation, without any proper or justified cause."

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives rights of public access to information held by public authorities. However, Section 14(1) of the Act protects public authorities from those who might abuse the right to request information.

Record keeping

Records of any decisions will be retained by the Complaints and FOI Team, including:

  • the name, email address and address of each customer who is classified as unreasonable
  • details of each information request classified as vexatious, including the name and address of the requester
  • what restrictions have been put in place 
  • when any restrictions were put in place, and the end date of restrictions