You may not know much about the service complaints system unless you’ve made or been the subject of a complaint. Hopefully you’ll never experience either but the reality is that some service personnel may face issues like harassment or discrimination, which may lead to a formal grievance.

Independently overseeing the process to ensure it’s efficient, effective and fair for both complainants and those who are subject of a complaint is the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces, known as SCOAF. Mariette Hughes (main photo) took on the five-year role in 2021, we caught up with her to find out more…

“In a civilian job you would have some way of being able to raise something that has affected you in your working life,” Mariette explains, “it’s the equivalent of an HR system so anyone who is a member of the armed forces has the statutory right to raise a service complaint.”

What are the criteria?

A complaint could be about anything that you feel has wronged you in service life. Common themes include career management, bullying and allowances. “This is not surprising,” says Mariette, “it’s the same as anywhere – you care about how you are progressing in your career, how you’re treated while you’re doing it, and how you’re being remunerated.”

Mariette is keen to encourage more service personnel to use the system, quoting stats from recent Armed Forces Continuous Attitude surveys which show that many incidents are going unreported. She explains: “I think it is underused. For the last three years I don’t think the stats have changed much, about one in ten people say that they’ve experienced inappropriate behaviour in the workplace – but only one in ten of those go on to raise a complaint.

“A very small percentage were able to resolve it informally, but far too many people say they didn’t think anything would be done, they thought they might be punished for raising it, or that they didn’t know enough about the system to do it.”

Greater independence

Complaints are no longer submitted through the chain of command and instead go to a central admissibility team, who decides whether or not it will proceed. It’s a major change that’s been implemented under Mariette’s watch. “This was prompted by recommendations from two reports and I am a big fan of it,” she says. “If I’m raising a complaint, even if it’s not about my chain of command, it’s going to be about people who might have existing relationships and friendships. By raising it to a centralised admissibility team, the chain of command is completely out of it and you just get a simple decision – is it admissible or not? All of the services have seen a significant increase in the number of complaints since it went live [June 2022]. It’s a positive step to give people more confidence in coming forward.”

Impact on the family

If you’re a family member of someone making, or is the subject of, a complaint, you may have concerns about how it’s affecting them. Mariette has this advice: “For both parties it’s not a comfortable position to be in. My office is doing a lot of work to try and make the system feel better and easier to use but it is still very stressful. The system takes quite a long time so that’s a significant period that people are living with this emotional burden. Information on how the system works and the rights and protections that are available to soldiers is available in the public domain. Even though my office can’t deal [directly] with families, it’s helpful to be aware of how the system should work, what should be followed in terms of process and that everyone is entitled to an assisting officer.

“Personnel are instructed not to discuss it with anyone outside the process and that extends to family members, so that can feel quite isolating. My message to soldiers is that you can still talk about how you’re feeling without sharing the details. If you are struggling, tell people – speak to your family or your assisting officer.”

Bringing about changes

Whilst the ideal situation is that there’s no need for complaints, realistically, Mariette believes the best case scenario is that people feel confident enough to raise a problem: “We can’t fix things if we can’t see them. We can make observations about trends, but if a big chunk of the complaints aren’t being raised, we don’t know where efforts should be focused.

“If we are starting to see a swell from a particular cap badge or area, it’s something we can feed back. Similarly, if we see significant statistical shifts or more of a certain type of complaint, we can ask ‘what’s going on?’ or have a look at other influences. We might have campaigns prompted by complaints and we might have complaints prompted by campaigns.”

Spreading the word

Mariette and her team are also actively promoting the system with a series of outreach visits to units, training establishments and the chain of command. “We do a number of things at different levels because we know that awareness of the service complaints system is mixed at best – and awareness of my office is worse. So we’re trying to make it clear to people that there is a system, there is an ombudsman, I am independent and I am there to support you.

“Utopia is finishing my term and being able to write an annual report that says the system is efficient, effective and fair. If we can get to the point where decisions are right and decisions are made on time, trust and confidence will start to grow.”

To find out more about service complaints, please see JSP 831 or go to Armed forces service complaints process


66% of complaints were closed within 24 weeks (tri-service target).

The average service complaint takes 35 weeks to process.

43% of service complaints are upheld (partially or fully) in favour of the complainant.

3 largest areas of complaint concerned:

  • Career management – 39%
  • Bullying, harassment or discrimination – 24%
  • Pay, pensions and allowances – 9%

Female service personnel remain overrepresented in the system, making up 21% of complaints but only 12% of the armed forces.

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