Gazing at the ADR landscape – Is the EU Directive just a mirage?

As a North American transplant to this cynical and self-deprecating island, I usually find I’m the lone Pollyanna in the room. Seeing the sunny side is part of my national nature. It doesn’t help that I’ve been a mediator for 25 years and am trained to see opportunity in adversity and promise in conflict.

But I’m more Cassandra than Pollyanna when it comes to the European Union ADR Directive and the excitement those unexciting words seem to inspire among colleagues in the dispute resolution world.

The Directive is aimed at addressing the gaps in consumer redress within and across European Union countries. It requires member states to ensure that there is independent appropriate dispute resolution (ADR) available for consumers to use as an alternative to courts for resolving disputes with traders and businesses. ADR must be free or low cost, accessible, quick and transparent.

So far, what’s not to like?

The main problem is that member states can choose whether or not to make businesses sign up to ADR, and Britain is unlikely to go down that route – this government has an allergy to anything that looks like regulation or bureaucracy or constraints on market freedom. So the upshot is that reputable businesses, ones that want to provide good customer service and can afford to pay for independent redress, will engage with the new requirements. The rogues of the consumer world – and not just the rogues, but the tiny, the tired and the overstretched – are all likely to say ‘no thanks’ to a consumer asking for independent redress. So ADR will be available, but it won’t necessarily be used. It could all turn out to be an exercise in fancy window dressing.

But not being used isn’t the worst thing that could happen – consumers who can’t get their trader to use an ADR scheme can still use the courts – and the small claims procedure in many ways is becoming more accessible and user friendly. I know from previous research I’ve carried out with court users that the fear of court is often unfounded; people are surprised to find they could manage the process without a lawyer. The small claims procedure has most of the attributes set out as desirable in an ideal ADR scheme – independent; a low barrier (court fee) that acts as an effective filter for vexatious complaints; a mediation option available if both parties agree, and a binding legal determination if necessary. Speed for small claims is variable but can be weeks rather than months or years.

What worries me more is what kind of dispute resolution we might end up with. In order to make their product attractive to businesses (which are the target ‘customers’, because they’re the ones paying for it), ADR providers will be pressured to compete on price and provide cheap and cheerful dispute resolution. That might suit some disputes, but not others. The Directive doesn’t distinguish between ADR processes, so mediation is lumped with arbitration, ombudsmen with conciliation, all in a soupy mix. Is anyone considering what types of dispute resolution work best for which consumers, which complaints?

I suspect that the ombudsman model – and in particular its emphasis on seeking evidence and on feeding back to the profession or industry complained about in an attempt to improve the actual services and internal complaint handling – will be pushed out in favour of a complaints’R’us approach – an assembly line of escalated complaints, which can offer a cheaper cost basis for the businesses that are its customers. Businesses could even find it’s cheaper to send their complaints to the ADR scheme rather than handle them properly themselves.

Is that what we’re aiming for? I’m open to being wrong, and indeed hope I am. But for now Cassandra is winning over Pollyanna in the landscape gazing.