This is a subject of general interest. It is also a matter of considerable personal interest to me, you will not be surprised to learn.

What is a querulant? He or she is a vexatious litigant (sometimes known as a “barrator”), or an unusually persistent complainer. The word’s root is from the Latin querulus, and so I take out my Lewis and Short: it means “full of complaints”. And it means “softly complaining, uttering a plaintive sound, murmuring, warbling, chirping”.

I know what you are thinking. Sounds exactly like Twitter!

In the nineteenth century, the problem of querulants received considerable medical attention. Psychiatrists identified a mental disorder named querulous paranoia. But as two Australian psychiatrists Mullen and Lester explain in their influential 2006 review for Behavioural Sciences and the Law, professional interest waned during the twentieth century: see “Vexatious litigants and unusually persistent complainants and petitioners: from querulous paranoia to querulous behaviour.”

The rise of complaints and grievance procedures in Western society has seen a resurgence of this troubling phenomenon.

Agents of accountability are aware of a small group of unusually persistent complainants who consume an inordinate amount of time and organisational resources in the pursuit of grievances that, in and of themselves, seem, if not trivial, at least lacking in the complexity and import that might justify such lengthy and concentrated campaigns.

The authors’ thesis is that querulousness is a behavioural disorder which is amenable to treatment, rather than a mental one. Those afflicted may present with some degree of mental disorder, or vulnerabilities arising from personality traits or social situation. Their disorder may be aggravated by the nature of the systems available to them for resolving their grievances, managing their distress and reducing the disruption which they cause to others.

Mullen and Lester conducted a survey which found that, although this category of complainants made up a fraction of 1% of those pursuing grievances, they consumed between 15-30% of all resources.  A study of 52 unusually persistent complainants found that they pursued their complaints for far longer, generated greater volumes of material in support of the claim and, when their cases were closed, “there had been nothing like a mutually acceptable resolution”.

Unlike the control group in this study, these persistent ones wanted not just reparation, but also retribution and personal vindication: “Typically they wanted specific individuals dismissed or prosecuted…..They often seemed to see themselves as champions of the common man, whose grievances had transcended the personal to become of national, or even international, import”.

Mullen and Lester explain that, of the patients they see in their clinic afflicted with this syndrome:

Many of these individuals have a plausibility and even an infectious enthusiasm. They present their grievances in pedantic detail and with superficial rationality. This can distract the inexperienced from the extraordinary nature of the actual claims in which the manifestly minor has come to support a grand edifice of conjecture and accusation.

…..Not infrequently they will arrive dragging suitcases full of documents which they will attempt to have you peruse.

Are these problem people actually deluded? Sometimes they are, according to Mullen and Lester. Others occupy “that borderline that is captured in such terms as overvalued ideas and delusion-like ideas”. But debating the technicalities of diagnosis is a dangerous distraction from “recognising the pathological nature of such querulousness”.

Do querulants have an obsession? Almost all display obsessional personality traits: “they know they are right”. But it is preferable to see them as fixated or obsessive, rather than obsessional. Querulousness, say Mullen and Lester, is a state of mind that may be associated with wide fluctuations in mood. However, it is rarely a condition generated by an underlying mood disorder.

The authors take care to distinguish the true querulant from other categories of the simply “difficult”, who may include social campaigners and whistle-blowers. A difficult person will, ultimately, settle for the best deal that they can get. In contrast, the true querulant invests a totally disproportionate amount of time and resources “in grievances that grow steadily from the mundane to the grandiose”. Negotiation and compromise are conspicuously absent from their vision of justice.

Whistle-blowers who have suffered for their pains may present as querulous, but can genuinely experience severe retaliation, becoming “the object of conspiracies and orchestrated litanies of lies”.

How can true querulants be helped? Mullen and Lester argue that managing querulants is about helping them to construct face-saving exits, which involves spelling out clearly at the very outset the limitations of legal or formal complaints procedures, and explaining that these cannot provide the querulant with the forms of retribution and vindication that they seek.

Querulants typically display a degree of cognitive distortion. These can include:

  • Those who do not fully support their case are enemies;
  • The grievance is the defining moment of their lives;
  • Because they are in the right, the outcomes they seek must not only be possible, but necessary.

The authors say that this last distortion, when combined with the querulant’s focus on retribution and vindication, “is particularly toxic”. Thus, managing querulants is about repeatedly clarifying, confronting and gently challenging those distortions.

This is not easy. Querulants tend to be “rigid, disappointed people short on trust, and long on self-importance”.

Mullen and Lester argue that such people should be a legitimate object of concern to mental health services, given the damage that querulants can wreak, not only on their own lives, but those around them. Querulants are destructive, which demands “an active attempt to engage with their ideas and claims. It is tempting but inadequate to just let the torrent of words wash over you.”

In addition, threats from querulants should always be taken seriously, not ignored. To ignore a threat is an insult to a querulant. Institutions dealing with querulants should provide staff who receive threats with support, and should have policies that define a range of responses.