Varda Bondy, Margaret Doyle, and Carolyn Hirst
This month saw the publication of a Nuffield Foundation-funded mapping study on the use of informal resolution by ombudsmen (download here), launched at two events in London (at the Nuffield Foundation) and Edinburgh (at Queen Margaret University). Both were attended by practitioners and representatives from administrative justice fora from the UK and the Republic of Ireland, as well as academics with specialist expertise and interest in this field. Such an audience was, unsurprisingly, not shy about giving their reactions and offering their own views – which is how it should be, and it is hoped that the report will encourage further discussion of the issues raised in it.
While ombudsman schemes are in themselves considered to be part of the ADR scene, various alternatives to the investigation process as originally designed have been developed over time. Little was known about the process and…
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Save the planet, mediate: could this be a new argument for mandatory mediation?
At a recent meeting about the SEND tribunal, which hears challenges to local authority decisions about special educational needs, I learned that the average evidence bundle is 350 pages, and some bundles run into the thousands of pages. Aside from sympathy for the parties who have to prepare these bundles, and for the tribunal members who have to read them, this fact should generate concern for the environmental impact of so much paper.
In contrast, mediations of these tribunal appeals usually involve a 1-2 page Agree to Mediate statement from each party and, where applicable, the child’s statement of special educational needs (SEN) (soon to be the EHC Plan). Parties might bring along their files and other papers, but they are rarely used during the mediation.
Arguing that its environmentally friendly approach is a good reason to make mediation compulsory is frankly absurd. But is it any more absurd than arguing that mediation should be compulsory because it is cheaper and faster than the tribunal?
From September 2014, we will see the introduction of the first mandatory mediation in the UK. That it has so far remained under the radar is due in part to the specialist area of SEN being an unfamiliar area of mediation practice. It falls between the cracks of non-family civil mediation, despite being the longest running area of mediation in the public law and administrative justice arena. Because the claims are not money-based, it isn’t reflected in the Ministry of Justice’s Civil Mediation Database. Because it isn’t commercial mediation, but nor is it family or community mediation, SEN mediators cannot join the Civil Mediation Council as individual mediator members.
In the UK we have resisted attempts to make mediation mandatory. We’ve had experiments with compulsion in the past, such as with the Automatic Referral to Mediation pilot in the London Central County Court in 2004-05 that was evaluated by Professor Hazel Genn. One of Genn’s findings was that efforts to introduce compulsion led to lower settlement rates, from 69% to 38% during the course of the pilot, and subsequently led to higher costs for parties. The pilot was not rolled out.
Other ways of compelling parties are more surreptitious. They include introducing or raising fees to lodge legal claims (as with employment tribunals), requiring parties to attend a mediation ‘information and assessment meeting’ (as in family cases), and withdrawing legal aid that allows parties to get advice (as in all but very few excluded types of cases). We’ve seen that the government’s attempts to promote the use of mediation in family disputes has spectacularly backfired, with the number of mediations plummeting since the withdrawal of legal aid means that people can no longer access the lawyers who can give them confidence in trying mediation.
With the new requirement in SEN cases, we see a different way of dipping our toes into the mandatory waters. Water is an apt metaphor, given the arguments made by some mediators and members of the judiciary that although you can’t make a horse drink by leading it to water, most horses do actually drink, once they find the water as pleasurable as it is marketed to be. In other words, once people get to the mediation table (even if that’s by force) they will find the process helpful.
The new measures to come in this September are part of the reform of special educational needs provision in the Children and Families Act 2014. If parents want to lodge a challenge to a local authority decision on SEN, they will be required to consider mediation – like the MIAM requirement in family mediation, this means obtaining information about mediation and a certificate from a mediation adviser. Without that certificate, a parent can’t lodge the appeal. If parents decide they want to mediate, the local authority is required to mediate. The twist is that compulsion is for the local authority only.
This is the first instance of mandatory mediation (not just mandatory mediation information) in this country, and it’s being introduced with very little outcry.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of mediation for SEN and disability disputes. Mediation works well in these cases, as years of experience and hundreds of cases has shown. My colleagues and I at the London SEN Mediation Service, run by the national charity Kids, have since 2003 seen the way mediation can help parents, schools and local authorities reach holistic and long-lasting agreements that put the child or young person at the heart of the resolution. But we were also among the majority of mediator respondents to the Department for Education’s consultation last year who argued vehemently against mandatory mediation for these cases.
Mediation is a wonderful resource and should be available to all, but it isn’t the answer in all cases. It takes time and effort, and to get a sound result you need the right people, senior people, to attend. For a number of reasons parties might legitimately decide not to mediate, and it serves no one to have parties attend reluctantly or to send a representative to mediation who doesn’t have the authority to settle. Furthermore, the risks introduced by the new requirement and the associated timescales will make mediation less, not more, attractive.
We might find that money is spent on mandatory mediation information provision (paid for by already over-stretched local authorities) and the issuing of certificates, and that numbers of actual mediations go down while tribunal numbers remain the same. The winners in this game are likely to be only the certificate-issuing mediation advisers. The losers are the parents and local authorities who will be forced to jump new hoops, and the children and young people whose provision might be further delayed.
Most women in their midlife years have heard of Spanx. For the rest of the population who don’t know, Spanx is the brand name of a range of undergarments that are specially designed to squeeze and shape you.
The problem is one of displacement of mass. Newton’s Third Law of physics, commonly known as ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’, tells us that we can’t use Spanx without repercussions. I’m sure there’s another law named after another eminent scientist that says ‘In a contained body, mass moved from one location will appear in another’ – but I can’t put my finger on it just now.
So you can squeeze and tighten, but unsightly bulges will appear in other places. Viewed face on in a mirror, these bulges might be near invisible, but other angles are less forgiving, and the consequence is the opposite of the gorgeous sleekness that was intended.
I considered this as I read the latest of many reports about the recent steep decline in the number of people using mediation for separation and divorce since the implementation of the cuts that came in with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). The Government’s own figures were that 623,000 of the one million people who benefit from Legal Aid every year will be denied access to this aid.
We now have more evidence for the suspicion that a combination of a) cutting legal aid to pay lawyers for advice on these cases and b) requiring a party who wants to file for divorce to attend a compulsory mediation information session equals fewer people actually using mediation for these cases and more continuing to use the courts. Yet the policies implementing these changes were intended to have the opposite effect – to move cases out of the courts increase the number of cases resolved by mediation.
A Freedom of Information Act request by a firm named Lawyer Supported Mediation uncovered startling stats for the six months from April 2013 (the start of the restrictions on legal aid) to October 2013. In the 12 months before LASPO D-Day in April 2013, lawyers made more than 62,000 referrals to publicly funded family mediation. In the 6 months after D-Day, they found just 20 incidents of lawyers using public funding for family mediation. That’s out of more than 82,000 family claims made in England and Wales in that period. So the picture isn’t one of more happy families and fewer separations, it’s one of more claims lodged in court by people in the midst of one of the most stressful events of life.
Why has it had that effect? Distasteful as the truth may be to some (including some of my fellow mediators), lawyers play a crucial role in making family mediation successful. Not in every case, and (dare I say) not every lawyer, and not by sitting in the mediation meeting with their client. But the gatekeeping role played by legal advisers is crucial for parties who are asked to consider a little-known and unfamiliar process, one with (let’s admit) some reputational issues, to resolve disputes that have significant and lifelong implications for the parties. Family disputes are often laced with fear – fear of the ex-partner, fear of conflict, fear of the effect on children and wider family members, fear of losing one’s home, fear of agreeing to less than you deserve. For women in particular there is often the charged dynamic of wanting to avoid conflict and worrying about pressure to agree to less than you are entitled to.
Legal aid is available for what is called “Help with mediation claims”, but its availability is not well known. It is a one-off fee of £150 for advice on mediation – not a sum most of us would sneeze at, but when you consider that a) this only kicks in after the lawyer has had an in-depth discussion with the client in order to identify if mediation is an option and b) more such discussions will be needed before a settlement is tied up in lovely ribbons, it doesn’t work out to be a sustainable income stream.
Mediation as a lawyer-free zone just won’t work in family cases (and probably in many other contexts too). In order to make informed decisions – whether to attempt mediation, what to propose in mediation, what to agree to in a settlement – many parties need legal advice. Mediation is an untried and untested process for most people –no wonder they feel reluctant to stake their future, and possibly that of their children, on it without some trusted guidance.
We know that the judiciary is concerned at seeing more people using the courts for unnecessary claims, floundering to get to grips with the legal system on their own. Lord Neuberger, who has been outspoken about the damaging effects of the legal aid cuts, said in an interview last spring:
“…if you start cutting legal aid you start cutting people off from justice … affecting their rights. And that’s dangerous. You either have people who are very angry with government and lose trust in the government … or you get them taking the law into their own hands.”
Litigants in person aren’t themselves the problem; the problem is a system that isn’t easily navigable to ordinary citizens. The challenges created by an increase in these litigants are set out clearly in the report of the Judicial Working Group on Litigants in Person (July 2013). The report highlights the problems faced by unrepresented legal parties in understanding and complying with court procedures, understanding rules of evidence, presenting their case articulately, focusing in the issues and judging the merit of their case. Managing cases where one party is represented and the other is not poses particular challenges, not least allegations of bias if the judge leans too far in helping a struggling litigant.
The Working Group also noted that unrepresented parties are not more likely to embrace mediation:
“They can be guarded against the notion of settlement or mediation, believing that any discussion prior to coming to a substantive hearing might be perceived as a sign of weakness, or simply because they wish to ‘have their day in court’.”
At best, people might find a way to reach constructive agreements themselves; or they might drop claims without merit or even manage to pursue a claim successfully in court on their own. At worst (and more so as court fees rise and tribunal fees take effect), simmering and unresolved conflict will burst out in other ways – in mental health problems, in violence, in unemployment. A case in Essex last October that resulted in courtroom rage is but one example.
More claims brought by litigants in person are just some of the unsightly bulges starting to appear as the result of the LASPO Spanx squeeze. Keep an eye out for more.
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.
A new and aggressive business has emerged in recent years – the business of stoking compensation culture hysteria. We see evidence of it in the press and, more worryingly, in government policy-making fuelled by a hatred of lawyers. It reminds me of the ‘PC gone mad’ hysteria that was so lively in the 1990s and still rears its unlovely head now and again. Like most hysterias, neither of these – the PC gone mad and the compensation culture – is rooted in an evidence base. Why, then, do they have such hold on the public, and political, imagination?
One example is a report published last year by the Centre for Policy Studies, a thinktank that describes its aim as advocating ‘a distinctive case for smaller, less intrusive government, with greater freedom and responsibility for individuals, families, business and the voluntary sector’. The Social Cost of Litigation by Frank Furedi examines two areas, health care and education, and argues that the fear of litigation is affecting the way professionals practice and, as a consequence, producing damaging outcomes.
In particular, Furedi focuses on what he calls ‘demand for recompense for accidents’ – presumably accidents which, in the good old days, would have been chalked up to experience, with no one to blame. Rising compensation levels, he suggests, lead people to make financial claims against public bodies, and the fear of such claims makes professionals risk averse, which in turn ‘erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy’.
Anecdote as evidence
The paper has so many holes ripe for picking that it’s difficult to choose which to write about. To call this report an ‘investigation’ into litigation in education and health care is farcical. First and foremost, it refers to new research – but what this ‘research’ amounts to is a series of anecdotes with unidentified individuals who seem to have have been selected on the basis of sharing the hysteria brief of the author.
This evidence includes, for example, an account by an unnamed headteacher of the damaging effect of a parent asking questions: every time the school gets a request for a copy of policies and risk assessments, it’s a week’s work to fulfil the request. The question crying out to be asked is – how can it take that much time, unless you don’t already have policies in place and have to write them from scratch?
It is a truism that one person’s bureaucracy is another’s transparency, or accountability – but possibly a truism unfamiliar to this headteacher.
I can do anecdote, too. I mediated a disability discrimination claim brought against a private nursery by parents of a toddler with autism. The boy had been excluded from his nursery for biting another child. The nursery had struggled to balance his needs with its duty of care to staff and other children. In six months there had only been this one recorded incident. The nursery staff claimed he had been biting them many times in that period. There were no records of this, nor any records of what steps had been taken to address his behaviour. A child who could not speak and who in frustration used biting as a means of communication was labeled bad and excluded. Only by starting a legal challenge could the parents get the head of the nursery to agree to meet in a mediation and discuss what impact this had on them as a family. What came out of it was a clear way forward in terms of improving the procedures for logging incidents and enhanced training for staff – and yes, financial redress, but in this case it was in the form of fundraising for an autism charity.
I agree wholeheartedly with Furedi’s statement that ‘…we need to challenge the expectation that professional best practice in the public sector should be measured by the absence of complaints or litigation’. But this is followed by the rather chilling statement: ‘A genuine return to respecting the principles of professional judgement would have a humanising effect on public services.’ In other words, let’s turn the clock back to when people respected doctors and teachers and didn’t ask questions or make demands. Doctor, after all, knows best.
There is more than cosy nostalgia at work here. It is essentially an attack on access to justice, an attack on rights – the extension, awareness and enforcement of rights. Furedi writes that ‘professional autonomy is being increasingly challenged by its confrontation with an agenda of consumer rights’. Nothing says more than his use of the word ‘agenda’, a term laden with disgust and dismissal.
The source of ‘evidence’ on the rising culture of naming, blaming and claiming in education are articles from the Telegraph and the Daily Mail on outrageous sums awarded for ridiculous injuries. For more robust evidence, see the speech given in March this year by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson (“Compensation Culture: Fact or Fantasy?“). He shatters myths around court decisions that gave rise to hysteria in the popular press, and he concludes that there have been no developments in substantive law encouraging a compensation culture.
The Furedi report argues that claims ‘inexorably’ lead to a diminishing of the public services and decline in the quality of education. Tell that to the young people with special educational needs who have had to fight for inclusion in mainstream schools. Those with behavioural difficulties face a constant struggle against being labeled bad. A survey conducted by the National Autistic Society (NAS) found that some 21% of children with autism are excluded, permanently or otherwise, from both mainstream and special schools, the most common reason given being that the school was unable to cope with the child.
Others find that without legal challenges, schools and local authorities won’t make the physical changes needed so that children with mobility impairments or cerebral palsy can attend mainstream schools. Let’s follow Furedi’s lead and use anecdote here – but from a named individual who went public with his struggle. In April 2010 Jonathan Bartley, a parent of a child with cerebral palsy, confronted David Cameron about his claim that there has been a ‘bias towards inclusion’:
‘We personally had to battle for two years to get our son into our local school, which his two sisters attend. It cost us thousands of pounds to go to a tribunal, which we then won. The local authority then said they would appeal against the decision to the high court. At that point, the secretary of state intervened, and paid for some modifications to the school. Samuel now attends the school.’
Instead of discouraging challenges, we need instead to encourage smarter complaining and better handling of complaints. Late settlements by local authorities is a constant problem with the SEN and disability tribunal. Whether it’s a tactic or it merely reflects departments under pressure, such settlements have a disproportionate cost for both parents and local authorities. The latter is, as Furedi would be the first to point out, public money being misused.
‘This is the perverse outcome of the modern fantasy of redress through litigation: every time we bring a claim against our health or education services, we are in effect suing ourselves. And every time we are encouraged to ‘name, blame and claim’ as an act of responsible citizenship, to stop other people sharing our bad experiences, we end up contributing to the worsening of these very services.
Where’s the evidence for that? This confused argument – that public services suffer when public bodies pay financial redress – has no foundation. The former Parliamentary Ombudsman Ann Abraham was straightforward in her condemnation of such an outdated approach: ‘Much work still remains to be done on the issue of financial redress. I’m still bewildered by the different attitudes to redress across the public sector: from local government where it appears to be understood and accepted; to central government where it is accepted – but somewhat grudgingly much of the time; to the NHS where it feels like pulling teeth… .’
Complaints aren’t the enemy
An interview with Furedi allowed him to elaborate on his views:
“In conversation, Furedi is steadfast: ‘There shouldn’t be compensation claims for financial reward in the public sector. It is a completely irrational process because who pays for it? It is not the nurse or the teacher or the doctor who is found liable. No, it’s the taxpayer, the public purse – that is what pays for it. It leads to an irrational use of resources. People talk about the postcode lottery. This is even worse because resources are distributed according to whether you have a good lawyer or a bad one.’ “
What better argument for encouraging a culture where complaints are welcomed and efforts are made not just to resolve the individual grievance (which, yes, sometimes requires financial redress) but also to learn from complaints and improve? One way to do this, and to save public money in the bargain, is to encourage earlier use of mediation – independent, rights-based mediation to help resolve the complaint and identify what needs to change.
Where a complaint has no merit, mediation offers a cost-effective way to identify what has led to it – a misguided sense of justice, an unreasonable demand for cash, or – far more likely, in my experience – a breakdown of trust and communication. Trust is rightly cited by Furedi as a key issue – but trust isn’t earned by virtue of a degree certificate on display in the headteacher’s office.
The report suggests that it’s misguided to think that complaints foster greater accountability. Why? It argues that the institutionalisation of a culture of complaint has caused a rise in complaints. How do we know that complaints aren’t on the rise because of a decline in services or, more optimistically, a sign of progress and greater awareness? Show me the evidence.
 Barnard et al, Inclusion and autism: Is it working? (NAS, 2000).
 From “The role of the independent scrutineer: ensuring effective accountability”, Ann Abraham’s Annual Lecture to the Centre for Public Scrutiny, Feb 2005.
One in five of us has a disability.
This might not come as a surprise in light of the very successful Paralympic games, which put disability at centre stage. But will this visibility last? Two years ago, as planning for the Games was in full swing, the UK government issued a Legacy Promise for Disabled People, setting out its commitment to bringing a shift in the way society views disability and to doing away with the obstacles that prevent people with disabilities from being fully included in all parts of society.
One aspect of this Legacy Promise is a commitment to improve accessibility of public transport. Gaps between the high-level commitment and the reality on the ground is an issue covered elsewhere in the article “Mind the Gap: What we’ve learned from the Paralympics” written with my colleague David Hilton.
Another aim of this Legacy Promise is to promote to business the benefits of attracting customers with disabilities. As with the ‘Pink pound’ campaign, making a business case for better access to goods and services for disabled people is considered to be more effective than threats and sanctions for breaching equalities legislation. Research conducted in 2010 found that one of the main barriers for small businesses was not knowing how to boost sales by attracting disabled customers.
So I welcome a new booklet produced for small businesses called Growing Your Customer Base to Include Disabled People. Published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, together with the Employer’s Fourm on Disability and the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), the booklet [http://odi.dwp.gov.uk/docs/idp/Growing-your-customer-base-to-include-disabled-people.pdf] provides clear and useful guidance on attracting and retaining customers by improving access to services.
It’s mostly parenthood and apple pie stuff – uncontroversial, unthreatening, even comforting in its common-sense approach. The problem is businesses need to know that even when it isn’t easy to improve access, it’s still the law. And that even with the best intentions, there will always disagreements over what is meant by reasonable adjustments and how far businesses need to go to ensure their services are accessible.
It’s unfortunate that at the same time we’re looking to see evidence of a legacy from the Games, we’ve seen a loss of the specialised service that helped businesses and disabled people resolve such disagreements. The Disability Conciliation Service was set up in 2002 by the Disability Rights Commission, and in the merging of the equalities commissions it transformed into the Equalities Mediation Service. Over the past ten years it has handled hundreds of discrimination cases and helped businesses and their customers to achieve long-lasting changes to the benefit of both. The government stripped the Equality and Human Rights Commission of its power to fund the service and refer cases to it. This sent a strong and unwelcome message – that it isn’t society’s responsibility to promote inclusion, and that disputes over accessibility are no different from disputes over building repairs or neighbour problems.
But these are different, and disputes over access aren’t a problem just for the one in five of us with a disability. We are all disadvantaged if we fail to live up to the promise of inclusion. It isn’t just good business, it’s our business.
Student complaints: are campus ombuds the answer?
The potential role of campus ombudsmen is a bit of a hot topic at the moment in England and Wales, at least in the world of student complaints. Campus ombuds have been around for some time in the USA. Most universities there seem to have someone in this role. In the UK, however, they are a relatively little known phenomenon.
What is a ‘campus ombuds’?
The International Ombudsman Association (IOA, http://www.ombudsassociation.org), the professional body for ombuds in the USA and elsewhere, describes different types of creature – classical, organisational and advocate ombuds. Campus ombuds fall into the organisational ombuds category, which the IOA defines as ‘a designated neutral who is appointed or employed by an organisation to facilitate the informal resolution of concerns of employees, managers, students and, sometimes, external clients of the organisation’.
Most campus ombuds operating in the US do not investigate complaints themselves but act as a resource for staff and students who experience difficulties and might be considering raising a formal grievance. Although operationally and personally independent, they are for the most part accountable to the university that employs them. Their operational independence therefore depends on the respect given to the role by the university administration and on the ability of the individual ombuds to resist any attempt to compromise their independence.
A model example
To find out more, I recently met with David Rasch, the campus ombuds of Stanford University, a private university in Palo Alto, California that has some 15,000 students and around 2,000 academic staff.
David describes his role as a confidential resource; he emphasises empowerment and he uses mediation approaches, although he is not a trained mediator. He describes what he does as:
- non-judgmental and supportive listening
- confidential discussion
- coaching people to independently negotiate and resolve problems
- identifying and reframing roots of the problem
- developing strategies for resolutions that fit all parties’ interests and goals
- opening channels of communication
- negotiating, facilitating or mediating between some or all parties
- developing and recommending systemic solutions
Unlike ombuds here in the UK, David (and his campus colleagues throughout the States) does not conduct formal investigations. Interestingly, he can initiate an inquiry if he becomes aware of an issue – a power not shared by most of the ombudsmen in the UK, who can only take on a complaint that has been raised by an individual complainant (or group of complainants). He keeps no records of any discussions, something that helps protect the confidentiality he promises to those who use his service.
With a PhD and a background in psychology and counselling, David manages to gain credibility from both staff and students as well as wider staff at the university.
Using the campus ombuds is voluntary, and he has no targets to meet in terms of reducing the number of formal grievances or legal claims against the university. Staff and students with a problem are encouraged to see him before filing a grievance, and he asks them to say (in a feedback form) whether they would have used a formal process if they had not gone to him. From this he has a sense of the impact of his work.
About half the complaints he sees relate to employment issues from non-academic staff. Another 15% are from academic staff, and these tend to relate to the tenure process, problems with students and departmental politics. Just over one-third are student complaints, and these range across undergraduate and postgraduate students. He reports monthly to the university’s President on demographics and types of cases but not on specific cases.
Campus ombuds have been referred to by critics as a means to “stop students from occupying the dean’s office” and by proponents as a “conscience on campus”. Listening to David, my sense was that the role of campus ombuds is hugely valuable, albeit possibly more so for a university’s administration than for a university’s students or staff. Ombuds can keep grievances and grumbles from escalating into full-blown legal claims, ever a consideration in such a litigious country. But even for those with the grievances or grumbles it offers a low-key way to deal with them without inviting the personal and professional destruction that so often accompanies disputes.
However valuable the role, however, it is one that depends heavily on the integrity and robustness of the individual ombuds, and there appears to be little protection for those post-holders pressured by an unsavoury administration to breach confidence or keep a lid on dissent. I have no doubt that David Rasch at Stanford is solid in both these characteristics. Others might not be, and their appointment and dismissal is at the whim of the administration.
Useful in the UK?
How might this role work here in the UK?
This summer the Department for Business (BIS, which oversees higher education in England and Wales) published its response to its White Paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’ and its subsequent Technical Consultation. Buried within a long document addressing student finance and regulation of higher education is a brief mention of campus ombudsmen. BIS notes that among respondents to its consultation, ‘The idea of campus ombudsmen and regional networks was supported by many but seen as unnecessary or inappropriate by others.’
Not an overwhelming endorsement, then. It will be interesting to see how the issue of campus ombuds is handled by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) in its response to its own Pathway 3 Consultation. This consultation was carried out in late 2011 (see www.oiahe.org.uk) after the OIA was tasked by BIS to consult on ways to encourage early dispute resolution. The OIA is expected to publish the results and its response soon. The issue is also the focus of work carried out by the Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service (IDRAS), a consultancy body for higher education.
The OIA and IDRAS
For those of you who aren’t familiar with either body, a bit of background. The OIA was established in 2004 and is the independent reviewer of student complaints about higher education institutions in England and Wales. It can only take on complaints once they have been through the university’s internal complaints procedure. Yet recent years have seen a steady increase in complaints, with resulting pressure on its staff to deal with cases more quickly. Meanwhile, complaints appear to be growing more complex.
IDRAS covers both student and staff disputes within universities. It produced, in 2008 and 2009, several reports on the state of play of dispute resolution within universities, including an overview of campus ombudsmen.
The OIA’s Pathway 3 consultation sought views on how best to promote the resolution of complaints at an early, internal stage, including the introduction of a campus ombudsman role. The consultation included a survey of the campus ombuds role in other countries, including Australia and the USA, where the role is well established.
‘Ombudsman’ culture in the UK
Here, the term ‘campus ombuds’ is problematic. We have a professional body, The Ombudsman Association (formerly known as the British and Irish Ombudsman Association, or BIOA), whose members are the various complaint-handling schemes for central and local government, housing and various private sectors, including utility companies, financial services and legal services. The OIA is a full voting ombudsman member, as is the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, which investigates complaints about higher education in Scotland. This means both schemes meet the Association’s membership criteria – including independence and accountability, as well as the power to investigate complaints and make determinations.
Campus ombuds in this sense would not meet the criteria for full membership of the Ombudsman Association. Furthermore, introducing a campus ombuds role here would risk creating confusion with what is in effect a national ombudsman scheme, the OIA, and put in place yet another hurdle for students to overcome before their complaint can be considered independently.
Mediation, not campus ombuds
In the UK we already have a range of mediation options for student complaints that could be developed in the push for more early dispute resolution, before complaints go to the OIA, or even in conjunction with an OIA investigation. There are a few well-established campus mediation services including Dundee University (see http://www.dundee.ac.uk/academic/edr/), which has been operating since 2009, as well as mediators and mediation providers with expertise in higher education (eg Equalities Mediation Service (www.equalities-mediation.org.uk) and IDRAS).
As a mediator with many years of experience in disability discrimination claims in higher education, I confess to having an interest in seeing more mediation taking place, and earlier, in such cases. I see the damage done to students and universities when complaints are dragged out over many years, limiting the options for resolution.
But my vision is not to steer all student complaints into mediation by default. It isn’t right for every case, or for every party in dispute. It is one of a range of tools that should be available for resolving such complaints, and it sits neatly with the authoritative role and investigative expertise of the OIA and, in Scotland, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. I’m not averse to having campus ombuds as an additional tool, but I worry that it will provide another hurdle and will add to the time involved in resolving student complaints. I also worry that it will be expensive for individual universities to establish and maintain an ombuds office. And I worry that, without independence, it won’t be a role trusted by students.
Instead, I’d like to see regional networks of specialised, independent mediators established, with the OIA’s support, which universities can call upon as and when needed, and as early as possible in the life of a dispute.
I look forward to seeing the OIA’s response to its Pathway 3 consultation. I’m hoping it will challenge assumptions about how the concept of campus ombuds will translate here and that it will explore the benefits of having access to independent mediation for student complaints.