This note outlines what you can complain about, how to make a complaint and the process that I will follow when dealing with a complaint against an MLA.
What you can complain about
As Commissioner for Standards I can deal only with admissible complaints that an MLA has broken one or more of the Rules of Conduct set out in the Code of Conduct. I cannot deal with other alleged misconduct by an MLA.
Not all misconduct by an MLA is within the scope of the Code. The following are examples of misconduct that would be within the scope of the Code and which I could investigate provided the other admissibility criteria were met–
- being convicted of an offence committed whilst acting as an MLA
- failure to register certain financial or other interests
- improper acceptance of gifts or hospitality
- misuse of Assembly allowances or resources
- improper use of information received in confidence
- using his or her position as an MLA for financial gain
- making an unreasonable and excessive personal attack on another person.
The following are examples of conduct which is not within the scope of the Code and which I could not investigate –
- providing a poor standard of service to a constituent
- anything done by an MLA in the Assembly Chamber whilst the Assembly is sitting
- anything done by an MLA when acting exclusively in his or her capacity as a Minister
- anything done by an MLA whilst acting exclusively in his or her capacity as the holder of another political or public office (eg as a member of the Policing Board)
- anything done by an MLA exclusively in his or her private family or public life.
How to make a complaint
Your complaint must be made in writing:
- Post: Print out a complaint form and post to The Commissioner for Standards, Room 283 Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast BT4 3XX
- Email: Complete and submit a complaint form to Standards.Commissioner@niassembly.gov.uk
The Complaints Process
In carrying out my investigation of a complaint against an MLA I must follow certain provisions set out in the Act and Directions given by the Committee on Standards and Privileges (‘the Committee’).
Receipt of Complaint
I will acknowledge receipt of a complaint as soon as possible after I receive it. At the same time, I will send a copy of it and any supporting documentation to the MLA complained about and to the Clerk to the Committee.
My first task is to decide whether a complaint meets the admissibility criteria set out in paragraph 3.3 of the Direction.
To be admissible a complaint must –
a) be made in writing;
b) state the name of the complainant;
c) state the postal address of the complainant except where the complainant is a current Member;
d) name the Member who is the subject of the complaint;
e) state the acts or omissions of the Member complained of which are alleged to have breached the Code;
f) state the rule or rules of the Code which each act or omission is alleged to have breached;
g) in relation to each act or omission complained of, be substantiated by being supported by sufficient evidence to satisfy the Commissioner that there is a prima facie case that a breach of the Code has occurred;
h) relate to alleged conduct which falls within the scope of the Code; and
i) be made within six months from the date when a complaint about the alleged conduct could reasonably have been made.
To assist you in ensuring that you include all the necessary information in your complaint, I recommend that you use the Complaints Form.
If I consider it necessary, I may conduct a preliminary investigation into the admissibility of a complaint. If I decide to do that I will tell the person who made the complaint, the MLA complained about and the Clerk to the Committee.
If a complaint which would otherwise be admissible does not meet one or more of the admissibility criteria, I will write to the person who made the complaint telling them which criteria has not been met and the further information that they must send me. I will set a time limit of not less than 21 days for providing that information. If the information is not provided within the time limit set, the complaint will not be admissible.
If, for any reason, I decide that a complaint is not admissible I will write to the person who made the complaint, the MLA complained about and the Clerk to the Committee setting out my decision, the reasons for it and giving details of the referral process.
When telling a person who has made a complaint that I have decided that it is not admissible I will specify a date, at least 14 days later, by which he or she may tell me in writing that he or she is dissatisfied with my decision.
If the person is dissatisfied with my decision he or she may, by the date specified in my letter, inform me in writing and give reasons why he or she is dissatisfied. I will acknowledge receipt of any such notification and inform the MLA complained about of it.
If, by the date specified in my letter, I receive such a notification I will refer the matter to the Committee for further consideration.
The Direction sets out the eight specific circumstances in which I may, with the approval of the Committee, discontinue my consideration of a complaint. These circumstances are that I am satisfied that –
a) the complainant has, without reasonable excuse, failed to co-operate with me;
b) the complaint is vexatious;
c) the alleged conduct is not sufficiently serious to justify further consideration;
d) the complainant no longer insists in the complaint; the victim of the alleged conduct, who did not make the complaint, does not wish the complaint to proceed and the complaint relates to Rule 3 (duty to uphold the law on equality) or Rule 15 (duty not to subject anyone to an unreasonable and excessive personal attack) of the Code;
e) the complaint repeats substantially an allegation that has already been considered by the Commissioner and no significant additional evidence has been provided;
f) the complaint would more appropriately be investigated by the police or other public body; or
g) it is not in the public interest to proceed with consideration of the complaint.
If the Committee approves my decision to discontinue consideration I will inform both the person who made the complaint and the MLA complained about. If the Committee does not approve my decision I will proceed with my investigation.
If I decide that a complaint is admissible I will inform the person who made the complaint, the MLA complained about and the Clerk to the Committee of my decision and that I have started my investigation.
I will conduct a full and thorough investigation of the complaint except that I may decide not to investigate any part of the complaint which the MLA complained about accepts as accurate.
At all times I will act in accordance with the principles of fairness and natural justice.
The purpose of my investigation will be to establish all the relevant facts in relation to the alleged breach of the Code of Conduct and to form a view on whether a breach of the Code of Conduct has occurred. I can form a view that a breach of the Code has occurred only if, on the basis of the evidence, I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that it occurred.
In the course of my investigation I will interview witnesses and consider relevant documents. The witnesses will normally include both the person who made the complaint and the MLA complained about. Before I interview any person I will send them a note setting out the purpose of the interview, my powers in relation to calling for witnesses and evidence and the procedure to be followed in connection with the investigation. Further information in relation to witnesses is given in Guidance to Witnesses.
I will also obtain documents that I consider may be relevant to my investigation. Normally these will be provided voluntarily but where they are not I have power to require that any document is handed over to me. It is a criminal offence to fail to hand over or tamper with or destroy a document I have called for.
If during an investigation, I become aware that my work may prejudice a police investigation I must suspend my investigation until the risk of prejudice has passed.
If during my investigation I become aware that my work may prejudice an investigation by a public body, other than the police, I may suspend my investigation until the risk of prejudice has passed.
I will inform the person who made the complaint, the MLA complained about and the Clerk to the Committee if I decide to suspend my investigation of a complaint.
If during my investigation there is evidence that is inconsistent with any evidence given by the MLA complained about I will invite that MLA to make representations to me about the inconsistency. This will normally be done by way of a further interview of that MLA.
Findings of Fact
When I have completed my investigation I will consider all the evidence and formulate my findings of fact. I will send a copy of these findings to the MLA complained about and allow a period of at least 14 days to challenge any or all of them.
If the MLA wishes to challenge any finding he or she must inform me in writing of the finding challenged and the reason for the challenge. He or she should provide me with any relevant documents.
I will consider any such challenge. If I do not accept it my findings of fact will be unchanged. If I accept the challenge I will revise my findings and send a copy of the revised findings to the MLA.
When I have finalised my findings of fact I will prepare a report for the Committee. The report will set out the details of my investigation, the transcripts of the interviews of all the witnesses, all the documents on which I have relied in reaching my decision, my findings of fact and my reasoned decision on whether a breach of the Code has occurred. Other matters that must be included in my report are set out in paragraph 8.1 of the Direction.
I will inform the person who made the complaint and the MLA complained about when I submit my report but I will not tell them of my decision on whether or not there has been a breach of the Code. Once the Committee has considered my report the Clerk to the Committee will inform both parties of its decision. My report will be published as an annex to the Committee’s own report on the complaint.
Normally the entire transcripts of the evidence I take and all whole of the documents on which I relied in reaching my decision are included in my report and published along with the Committee’s report. If you do not wish your name or some other matter to be published, you should write to me setting out exactly what you want omitted and the reasons for your request.
This note provides only an outline of the procedure. If you wish further information on the process please do not hesitate to contact me. Because I am responsible for investigating complaints I cannot give you advice on whether or not you should make a complaint
If you wish to contact me you should either email me at StandardsCommissioner@niassembly.gov.uk or, if that is not possible, write to me at Room 283, Parliament Buildings, Stormont Estate, Belfast BT4 3XX or telephone my Personal Secretary on (028) 9052 1338.
It will speed up the investigation process if I am able to communicate with you by email rather than post. If you have not already given me your email address, please let me have it as soon as possible.