Are we "Vexatious" or "Persistent" Complainants - or just tenacious?

Accountability Scotland have been described dismissively as constituting vexatious or persistent complainants inrelation to our communications with parliamentary bodies and the SPSO. This is a way of debasing us and of implying that our arguments are of no consequence. We are indeed tenacious in pursuing our goals and some officials we deal with may be vexed by this, but “vexatious” and “unusually persistent”, and some related terms have a special meaning in psychiatric literature. They refer to a particular category of complainant, possibly fewer than one in twenty, with a tendency to share certain uncommon personality characteristics that can make these people very difficult to deal with.


We are unaware of any amongst the members of Accountability Scotland to whom this label applies.It is therefore important that we combat the use of such phraseology as a weapon against us.It is also important that we remain “tenacious”, for justified tenacity can be rewarded (i.e. Hillsborough).


The label of “vexatious” is also sometimes used against individual complainants by public officials and even the SPSO. It provides an easy way of shutting down an investigation that is in danger of becoming embarrassing.


Several phrases have been used in this general context, including ‘querulant’ or ‘querulous complainant’ as well as‘vexatious complainant’ and ‘unusually persistent complainant’ (the word ’unusually’ being important here).What are the characteristics of such people? They make an interesting list, but they are also worth noting by any would-be complainant who wishes to avoid being judged as vexatious. You are far more likely to be treated sympathetically and to win your case if you are not tarred by the “vexatious brush”.As you look at the list, you may well think that particular items are perfectly innocuous, justified in some contexts or even potentially helpful. It is therefore important to bear in mind that it is a combination of a number of them together that characterises the vexatious complainant. Here are some of them, taken from a research article (see the first reference below, by Lester, Wilson, Griffin and Mullen):

  • Abusive language
  • Writing letters more than 100 pages long, which are often hard to follow
  • Numerous telephone calls or letters
  • Making telephone calls lasting more than an hour
  • Sending copies of other irrelevant letters
  • Sending personal character endorsements
  • Over-use of capital letters and highlighters
  • Repeated underlining
  • Numerous inverted commas
  • Many comments written in margins
  • Making threats over the phone or in writing
  • Threatening suicide
  • Unnecessary repetition
  • Expressing complaints in an incoherent manner
  • Involving other agencies
  • Desire for public recognition of the complainant’s struggles
  • Demand for retribution or revenge
  • Use of rhetorical questions


We emphasize again that showing just a few of these characteristics should not necessarily brand one as a vexatious or unusually persistent complainant. Most were exhibited by some of the nonvexatious ‘control’ individuals in the study of Lester et al, but to a much lesser degree. This issue is discussed on the SPSO’s website (see below), so there is no excuse for dismissing us collectively as vexatious or persistent complainants. Regardless of how we are judged in this regard, what should ultimately matter is whether our arguments are sound and our information correct.

Further reading:

Lester G, Wilson B, Griffin L and Mullen PE (2004) Unusually persistent complainants. BritishJournal of Psychiatry 184, 352-6.


Australian Ombudsman - Unreasonable Complainant Conduct Report – June 2009


SPSO: Unacceptable Actions Policy


Skilling G, Øfstegaard M, Brodie S, Thomson L. Unusually Persistent Complainants against thePolice in Scotland