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How To Go About Making A Complaint

The APF is an all-volunteer advocacy group. It examines technologies and practices, it develops policy, it lobbies governments for improvements in laws, and it lobbies organisations of all kinds for improvements in their practices.

But APF does not have the resources to advise on or assist with complaints on behalf of individuals.

The purpose of this document is to provide information for people who want to do something about privacy-invasive behaviour. It provides an outline of how to go about making a complaint, followed by the contact points for bodies that have the power to receive and investigate complaints about privacy-invasive behaviour.

The links in this page are reviewed periodically. Please advise any broken links, or suggested enhancements, to the APF Web-Team.


Who To Complain To

Complaint-handling bodies will generally not consider a complaint unless the matter has already been raised with the organisation that's being complained about. That's partly because complaint-handling bodies are under-resourced and have to assign priorities to the complaints that they receive. But it's also because organisations should have the problem brought to their attention by the people who are upset about it, and should have the opportunity to address the problem without any third parties getting involved. (Some organisations are not very good at this; but some not only have complaint-handling processes in place, but actually handle complaints quite well).

So Rule Number 1 is to address the complaint in the first instance to the organisation that's causing the problem. Later, if you haven't got satisfaction from that organisation, there may be somewhere appropriate to escalate it to.


Preparing a Complaint

To be effective, a complaint needs to communicate clearly to the organisation what happened, and why it's a problem.

For relatively simple problems, a phone-call or a personal meeting may be a good way to start. But even with simple problems, it's advisable to get the facts clear in your mind, and commit the key pieces of information to paper.

For more complex problems, it is much better to express the complaint in writing. Organisations prefer this, partly a way of reducing the number of complaints that they have to handle (because many people don't take the time to prepare a letter), but also as a means of making sure that they understand what the problem is. Some organisations say that a complaint has to be in writing, and even on a particular form that they've designed. But if you would have trouble doing that, contact the body by telephone and explain your situation.

It's important to keep a copy of all correspondence, and to note the date and time of each conversation, and the name of the person you talk to. These need to be included in documents you submit, to assist the organisation to conduct its investigation.

Some organisations may be willing to help you to prepare a complaint. Your local community legal centre might be able to help. You could consider paying a private lawyer to assist you. Depending on the details, you may be also able to get help from other sources.

In addition, some of the complaint-handling bodies listed below provide advice on how to prepare a complaint. The Ombudsman's Office provides Tips on Resolving Complaints and Disputes, The Commonwealth Government site for consumers (run by the Department of the Treasury) provides a Fact Sheet on Steps in Making a Complaint, and the Victorian Consumer Affairs Bureau offers Ten Top Tips for Letters of Complaint.

See also Complaint Line's Advice on Making a Complaint, and its Privacy Complaints Page.

Looking at it from the other side, a number of documents provide guidance to businesses in the handling of complaints. The Western Australian government offers a Guide to Companies on When Customers Complain, and Complaints Handling Guidelines for Traders. Another similar document is the Commonwealth government's 'Best Practice Model' for Complaint Handling and Dispute Resolution for eCommerce. These are probably simplified versions of an ACCC report called 'Benchmarks for dispute avoidance and resolution : a guide', of October 1997 (60 pages), available in PDF format.


Escalating a Complaint

Some complaints are satisfactorily dealt with by the organisation that caused the problem. But some aren't. If you're not satisfied with what you've achieved, and want to go further, you need to seek out a complaint-handling body that deals with that particular kind of problem. You may want to seek assistance from someone in order to select the right organisation to address the complaint to, and to prepare the complaint in the most effective manner. Relevant advisors include your local community legal centre and lawyers more generally.

There's a variety of complaint-handling organisations. Some of them are government agencies, some are independent but government-funded, and some are associations or even businesses. Some will assist you gratis, and some (such as professional lawyers) may charge a fee. Some have powers that they can exercise over the organisation you're complaining about, and some have no power at all. Some complaint-handling bodies deal only with very specific matters, or a particular industry sector. Some are restricted to a particular State or Territory, whereas others are national. Some can address all aspects of privacy (including privacy of the person, privacy of personal behaviour, and privacy of personal communications); but many are limited to privacy of personal data. Some are specialist privacy organisations, but some have a wide scope which includes privacy as just one element.

The lists below provide information about complaint-handling organisations. You may need to read the whole list, in order to work out which one or two appear to be most relevant to the particular problem you are dealing with.


Complaint-Handling Bodies

'Privacy Commissioners' have been created by three Parliaments. Their scope encompasses the public sector in four of the country's nine jurisdictions, and some of the private sector. Among other responsibilities, they handle complaints about a variety of matters. They are:

If the matter is of an administrative nature, then it may be more appropriate to submit it to an Ombudsman, or some other specialist complaints body. The Commonwealth Ombudsman maintains a list of bodies that handle complaints. The wide range of additional organisations that may be prepared to handle complaints of particular kinds. They are listed below under the following headings:


National

The Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner provides a Guide to Privacy Laws in Australia, which may help orient you to what follows.

The following organisations may be prepared to consider complaints about behaviour anywhere in Australia that breaches privacy laws, codes, or expectations:

The following are some relevant Consumer Associations:


States and Territories

The Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner provides a Guide to State Privacy Laws, which may help orient you to what follows. The Commonwealth Ombudsman maintains a list of State and Territory Ombudsman addresses.

The following organisations may be prepared to consider complaints about behaviour within each State and Territory that breaches privacy laws, codes, or expectations:

N.S.W.

Victoria

Queensland

Western Australia

South Australia

Tasmania

A.C.T.

Northern Territory


Additional Resources

The following sites may provide you with access to additional information or complaint-handling organisations:


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Created: 18 February 2003 - Last Amended: 24 June 2007 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 11 January 2009
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