I mediate in disputes between families and schools and local authorities involving support for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This falls within the arena of administrative justice – the interactions between individuals and communities and state institutions – and in this context of citizen grievance (‘citizen’ referring to anyone subject to decision-making by the state), mediation is not a cheap and fast alternative to litigation. To portray it as such diminishes the promise that mediation holds to humanise state bureaucracy and reposition the citizen-state relationship as one of mutual and shared rights and obligations. In this context, rather than a focus on settlement, mediation’s values should be underpinned by reciprocity and recognition, and linked closely with the ways that we embed social rights in our everyday interactions.
Far from celebrating the alternative mechanisms for giving force to social rights, such as mediation and the ombud, advocates of social rights have often lamented the lack of legal enforcement and argued for ways of making social rights justiciable in the courts. Even when the desirability of process pluralism is accepted (a ‘horses for courses’ approach promoted by the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC 2010)), priority has been given to the courts as the leading protagonist in any future partnership of relevant agencies. Mediation and other informal mechanisms have as a result found themselves relegated to the margins as a means of providing effective accountability for social rights violations.
This is one of the premises of our book, Reimagining Administrative Justice: Human rights in small places (Palgrave 2019), in which my co-author Nick O’Brien and I propose a realignment of administrative justice and human rights, and specifically social rights, as a means of fostering more sustainable and democratic responses to citizen grievance. I am a mediator; he is a tribunal judge. Together we see what increasingly resembles a busy assembly line of complaints and appeals that is costly in human and financial terms without evidence of sustainable improvement. We consider how mediators, ombuds and tribunals can work in a complementary, not competitive, way to support democratic accountability.
In the book, we challenge the orthodoxies of administrative justice that prioritise the individual user, a well-oiled system, and closure by ‘resolution’.
The individual user has become sacrosanct in debates about the design of administrative justice. Reflecting the consumerist ambition that the point of reference is the individual ‘user’ of any service and that ‘user friendliness’ is the ultimate aim, proposals for redesign of administrative justice assume that any response to citizen grievance should be judged by how effectively it offers ‘user satisfaction’, whether in accessing a tribunal, mediator or ombud. Yet there are grounds for scepticism about this assumption, not because the user is unimportant but because the true identity of ‘the user’ is frequently contested, rarely simple, and never a matter of purely individual choice, divorced from all social and shared need.
Policy makers and academics often observe that, in contrast to the criminal justice, family justice or civil justice systems, the administrative justice system does not as yet exist, and moreover that this is a bad thing. This observation assumes the desirability of making administrative justice more ‘systematic’, in the sense of more clearly structured and bounded, with practice and process more uniformly prescribed and co-ordinated. This striving for systematisation, for consistency and certainty, looks dubious as an overarching strategy, not least because it fails to take account of the unavoidability of uncertainty and the need to remain ‘agile’ in the face of an unpredictable future. Too much ‘system’ can lead to precisely the uniformity, bureaucracy and inflexibility that administrative justice has always aspired to counter. We suggest recasting administrative justice as less of a system and more of a woven fabric, to look for what Bauhaus weaver Anni Albers described in 1958 as the ‘interdependent threads’ that, when connected, ‘form a cohesive and flexible whole’ (Albers 1965).
And finally, the emphasis on individual redress has reinforced the expectation that any serious attempt to respond to citizen grievance must aim for finality and ‘closure’. Even if the outcome is one of disappointment for the individual complainant, at least the administrative justice process will have brought things to an end, achieved closure and allowed for business to resume. To design for closure, however, is to design for resignation, for the acceptance of limit and definition, for boundary and exclusivity. The ability of administrative justice to engage in iterative practices, deliver provisional outcomes, and enable future creative participation, albeit under the shadow of inevitable uncertainty, is seriously constrained by such an ambition.
Design theory and the ‘problem in relationships’
In proposing the alternative orthodoxies of community rather than individual user, of a network rather than system, and of openness rather than closure, we explored design culture as a source of new ideas. Design theory has begun to feature in discussions about the future of administrative justice, and the prospects of a ‘digital by default’ future require us to reflect on what design might mean for administrative justice and for the fabric of the justice system more generally. The trajectory of design culture in the past 75 years and its own entanglements with democratic values, individualism and the marketplace illustrate how design has been subjected to similar pressures as those exerted on administrative justice and human rights. Innovative and progressive solutions have emerged in design culture, and part of the purpose of this book is to explore the resonance between ideas in design culture and the reconnection of human rights with administrative justice as proponents of a reinvigorated democracy. It is in the design of the public realm, in urban planning and housing development that the values that can shape a reinvigorated democracy become most clearly visible and in which the possibilities for administrative justice and human rights emerge most clearly.
Lack of trust is often cited as being at the core of the problematic citizen-state relationship. That lack of trust works both ways – not only in how the citizen views the state but how state institutions view the citizen. As political theorist Danielle Allen has noted, ‘citizenship is not, fundamentally, a matter of institutional duties but of how one learns to negotiate loss and reciprocity. … unrestrained self-interest does not make the world go round but corrodes the bases of trust’ (Allen 2004:165).
Where does mediation fit into this? We argue that mediation plays an unheralded role in this reshaping of the citizen-state relationship. That relationship is often characterised as one bounded by the constraints of standardised, faceless bureaucracy – but that bureaucracy is the frontier where the citizen meets the state and feels its texture. The problem in bureaucracy is, in turn, a problem in relationships. Human rights and administrative justice are, in their different ways and common origins, both means of humanising those relationships and investing them with democratic credibility.
Our book explores mediation techniques and their potential place as part of a networked and loosely woven administrative justice fabric. The use of the senses is important – looking, listening, even touching, where that suggests a lingering feeling of empathy, of common humanity inherent in an ethic of care approach that recognises the interdependence of citizen-state relationships. Mediation and other so-called extrajudicial institutions of administrative justice are not about policing bad behaviour but about promoting good behaviour on behalf of the community, including good administration. They are therefore well suited to restoring the humanity in bureaucracy, to ensuring that the way we touch the state, and it touches us, is constructive, not destructive.
Mediation as ‘appropriate alternative’ or ‘collaborative complement’?
Two areas in particular illustrate the need for a model that embraces democratic participation and the relaxing of confidentiality rules: planning and development, and special educational needs and disabilities. In both contexts, at least one of the parties is a public authority with requirements to report (to auditors, for example) or to answer to democratically elected representatives (local authority councillors, for example), and both involve consideration of wider community interests (CEDR 2003). Therefore, it may be both undesirable and unfeasible to impose confidentiality on mediation of public sector cases, including but not only multi-party public policy disputes. Critiques of claims for mediation’s advantages of speed, low-cost, and informality are justifiable (Pearce and Stubbs 2000; Bondy, Doyle, Reid 2005), but in a public-interest context it is the promised multi-interest engagement that is more interesting to explore – its added value more than its alleged proportionality.
In the book we examine special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in England as a case study to highlight mediation’s potential to contribute to the democratic accountability work of administrative justice. In 2018, 3,200 SEND mediations were conducted. This is a complex and multi-faceted landscape, with a range of complaint mechanisms for different types of disputes operated by different public bodies and private actors (schools, local authorities, Secretary of State, the NHS, Ofsted, the SEND Tribunal, SEND-accredited mediators, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, judicial review). It is an area rich with the polycentricity of disputes, with their overlapping web of perspectives, and alive to the tension between individual and collective rights.
In the SEND context the impetus for mediation is usually a challenge to a specific local authority decision that can be appealed to the Tribunal, but in reality the mediation encompasses a multiplicity of issues that go beyond the grounds for appeal, reflecting the ongoing relationship between families and schools and local government. It is not only the interests and needs of the parties attending that have to be taken into account. Collective interests are inherent in the duties that local authority SEND teams have for accounting for use of public funds, in schools’ needs to be supported, and in the needs of all pupils in the community to have access to inclusive education. Mediation as a means of democratic co-design offers the promise of addressing both individual and collective needs; it is essentially about connection, and it embraces conflict as a positive force for change. In that way, it allows for many voices and lends itself to the polycentric nature of SEND disputes.
The ‘sensibility’ of mediation
The ability of mediation to accommodate many voices and issues gives it a distinct texture or ‘sensibility’ that can complement more determinative grievance mechanisms. Mediation works in tandem with tribunals, as in the SEND context, and with the ombud; disputes can be mediated before or even after an ombud investigation, for example (LGSCO 2017:7; OIA 2013). It can also function as a complement to judicial review and the Court of Protection, often in complex cases in which disability rights are at the core (Bondy and Doyle 2011; May 2017).
More often, however, mediation has been presented as an alternative, not a complement, to more formal legal processes and even as an answer to the perceived problems besetting the courts, ‘gridlocked with competing sides or overworked with too-big-to-handle dockets’ (Menkel-Meadow 2002:53-54). Government policy, from Lord Woolf’s Access to Justice report in 1996 through to ‘proportionate dispute resolution’ as advocated in the 2004 White Paper, the 2007 Act, and the 2016 Transforming Our Justice System paper, has set out to promote mediation and other informal mechanisms of resolution as an answer to the perceived ‘problem’ of overcrowding in, and lack of access to, the formal justice system. What is needed, however, is a shift away from an emphasis on proportionate and fast toward an integrated network of complementary approaches that can accommodate the looseness that enables mediation to be more than about resolution or settlement. As we write in Reimagining Administrative Justice, this shift does not prioritise cost and speed; instead it prioritises principles of openness and community interest that are compatible with fostering democratic engagement and accountability, mutualism and difference.
These principles resonate with what has been called the transformative dimension of mediation, linked to ‘an emerging new vision of self and society, one based on relational connection and understanding rather than on individual autonomy alone’ (Bush and Folger 2005:23-24). This reflects a shift from an individualistic vision to a relational and interactive one, bringing individual freedoms together with social conscience. Settlement-oriented behaviour by mediators (often encouraged not only by policy imperatives but by codes of conduct and practice standards) is linked to a wider issue of ‘conflict control’ and to the fundamentally pessimistic ideology identified by Bush and Folger that holds that because human beings are ‘incapable of engaging with one another without destructive consequences’, social interaction is a destructive force (Bush and Folger 2005:247).
If this seems over-dramatic, consider the language used in some descriptions of the mediator’s role – to ‘control’ the process, ‘manage’ emotions, helping people to move away from ‘unreasonable’ positions – and some techniques, including keeping parties apart in caucus sessions, coercion and even bullying by mediators (Genn et al 2007; Enterkin and Sefton 2006). Mediation is not about neutrality, contrary to popular belief, nor is it about managing or controlling conflict. Concerns about the dangers of interaction are rooted in the view that individuals are driven by desire of fulfilment and that interaction must be limited and controlled so it meets that need but does not spill over into conflict, which is something to be managed in what is called ‘conflict control’. A ‘conflict-control’ model relies on a deficit view of human capacity linked to an ‘ideology of individualism’ and a notion that social interaction should be ‘tolerated but watched carefully’ (Bush and Folger 2005:245).
I’m not against settlement or resolution. In many contexts it is what parties want and is an acceptable ambition. In the spaces of citizen grievance and public administration, however, rather than measuring the success of mediation by the number of settlements achieved, we should be aiming for mediation to be measured in terms of sustainability – whether it offers an alternative to the assembly line of complaints and appeals that the administrative justice ‘system’ increasingly resembles. Sustainable outcomes are possible when the interaction between people in conflict is open, iterative and deliberative, not funneled toward settlement.
Mediator and academic Carrie Menkel-Meadow suggests that mediators are reshaping the processes they use to move away from a focus on resolution and ‘right answers’ to focus on the ‘sensibility’ of mediation, one that adopts a feminist emphasis on needs and that prioritises empathy and listening rather than closure. She writes of what she considers to be ‘mediation values’ – reconciliation, listening, storytelling, empathy, understanding, accountability and apology, if not forgiveness – being used in both large and small arenas, including in human rights claims and in controversial community-wide issues. One such arena is SEND, which entails social rights and state decision-making and must accommodate often competing collective and individual needs, and in which such a reshaping is necessary.
Mediation in this sense is therefore more than mere dispute resolution or the creation of a safe space for negotiated justice. It becomes instead a technique for allowing citizens’ voices to be heard, for constructing bridge-building dialogue and for the restoration of relationships that are public and institutional rather than private and personal.
Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC) (2010). Principles of Administrative Justice. London: AJTC.
Albers, A (1965). On Weaving. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Allen, D (2004). Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bondy, V and Doyle, M (2011). Mediation in Judicial Review: A practical handbook for lawyers. London: Public Law Project.
Bondy, V, Doyle, M and Reid, V (2005). Mediation and Judicial Review – Mind the Research Gap. Judicial Review 10(3), 220-226.
Bush, RAB and Folger, JP (2005). The Promise of Mediation: The Transformative Approach to Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) (2003). ADR for public authorities: A guide for managers. London: CEDR.
Enterkin, J and Sefton, M (2006). A report on the Exeter Small Claims Mediation Pilot. DCA Research Series 10/06. London: Department for Constitutional Affairs.
Genn, H et al (2007). Twisting arms: court referred and court linked mediation under judicial pressure. Research Series 1/07. London: Ministry of Justice.
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) (2017). Education, Health and Care Plans: Our first 100 investigations. London: LGSCO.
May, C (2015). Mediating Court of Protection cases – Summary of research. UK Administrative Justice Institute (UKAJI) blog.
Menkel-Meadow, C (2002). When Litigation Is Not the Only Way: Consensus Building and Mediation As Public Interest Lawyering. Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 10, 37-62.
National Audit Office (2018). Handling of the Windrush situation. HC 1622 Session 2017–2019. London: National Audit Office.
Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) (2013). Mediation – a guide for students. Reading: OIA.
Pearce, B and Stubbs, M (2000). The role of mediation in the settlement of planning disputes at appeal: the debate and research agenda. Environment and Planning 32, 1335-1358.
One of the issues that worries me, and many of my mediator colleagues working in the special educational needs and disability (SEND) field, is how to encourage more young people to participate in decision-making in mediation. Both mediation and tribunals are options for dealing with unresolved disputes with a local authority or school about SEND support or provision. These are disputes about a young person’s entitlement to support, and there is generally widespread recognition that young people, as rights holders, should have their voices heard in the determination of such disputes. Yet the reality is that young people rarely attend mediation or tribunal hearings, and the mechanisms by which they can be involved as decision-makers are very limited. This reality for tribunal hearings is the focus of a recent blog post on www.ukaji by Dr Orla Drummond, whose research also resonates for mediation in SEN disputes.
The new SEN framework
The Children and Families Act 2014 (CAF) brought in an element of compulsion in that individuals wishing to challenge a local authority decision on SEN are required to consider mediation before lodging an appeal with the First-Tier Tribunal (SEN and Disability). The CAF also emphasises the participation of children and young people in decisions about their support and requires local authorities in England to have regard to their views, wishes and feelings; the importance of their participation, as fully as possible, in decisions; and the need to provide information and support to enable that participation.
The framework now applies to young people up to age 25, and the Act gives new rights directly to young people at age 16: when they reach the end of compulsory school age, it is the young person, and not their parent, who has the right to make decisions about their support. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice (2014) sets out that the specific decision-making rights about SEN include requesting a needs assessment for an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan; challenging the contents of the Plan; requesting a particular school or college; and appealing to the tribunal about decisions concerning their EHC Plan.
It is this final point, and the participation of young people over age 16, that is the focus of this piece.
Mediation has been part of the SEN framework in England and Wales since the 2001 Code of Practice articulated the importance of independent disagreement resolution for these disputes and the duty of local authorities to make such independent disagreement resolution available. It has been given new prominence in the CAF and the 2014 Code because it is now a requirement, in all but a few exceptions, for parents or young people to consider mediation before they can lodge an appeal with the tribunal.
As mediators, our approach has been to explore how best to involve the child or young person in the mediation. Where the child is under 16 and the parents feel it is appropriate, we invite them to attend the mediation, and this has worked well where a young person is willing to participate. I have had a number of young people involved in mediations I have conducted, most aged 11-14 but more recently in the 18-20 age range. In the vast majority of mediations, however, parents attend without the child or young person. My experience bears this out: this past year I have conducted more than 40 SEN mediations, and only a handful have been attended by the young person. This is despite the introduction of the new framework and Code, with its emphasis on young people being involved.
In all cases, even if the child or young person is not attending the mediation, we invite them, via their parents or carers, to contribute their views on their educational needs and preferences. Depending on the issue in dispute, this might involve views on support in school or college, type of school, or even whether or not to proceed in education past age 16. We use a form that allows the child or young person to write or draw their responses to specific questions, or to dictate their responses for someone else to record them. We encourage parents to bring photographs or videos that convey useful insights into their child’s needs.
An evaluation of a pilot of young people’s rights to appeal to the SEN Tribunal in Wales indicated strong support for the principle of extending the rights of children and young people to participate in decision-making, but limited evidence of practice. Participation has most often been promoted as a duty on adults (eg parents or local authority officers) to obtain the views of children and young people. A recent project explored how mediators and local authorities are addressing pupils’ views and/or enabling their participation in SEN mediation. Other relevant research includes current work on modeling legal participation in courts and tribunals (G McKeever, Ulster University) and a review of current SEN disagreement resolution arrangements in England (M Cullen et al, Warwick University). In the US, a guidance document was produced in 2003 by the Consortium of Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE), drawing on research on pupil involvement in individual education plans meetings and peer mediation.
Young people as decision-makers
When the young person is over age 16, it is legally their decision to make (unless there is a question of capacity – see below). Again, it is invariably the parents who attend mediation on behalf of the young person, even those over age 16. In such circumstances, we seek authorisation that the young person agrees to the parents taking the case, and decisions on the issues, on their behalf. I am heartened to see more young people age 16+ attending mediations, but it is still the minority. In only one of the cases I mediated was the young person represented by an independent supporter, someone who can advocate on the young person’s behalf.
‘Capacity’ is a complex issue. The right of a young person to make decisions about SEN support is subject to their capacity to do so, as set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005. This explains that capacity applies to individual decisions and may vary according to the nature of the decision; someone might be deemed to have capacity to make a decision about one issue and not another. In relation to SEND, the underlying premise is that young people, age 16+, even if they are deemed to lack capacity to make a particular decision, should be empowered to make as many decisions about themselves as possible (see 2014 Code of Practice s.8.21). One of the fundamental principles of the Mental Capacity Act is that a person is not to be treated as unable to make a decision merely because she makes an unwise decision. And local authorities should not use parents’ views as a proxy for the views of a young person (see SEN4You factsheet).
Welfare versus citizenship approaches
Aside from the issue of capacity, whether or not it is ‘appropriate’ for a young person to participate in mediation (or tribunal hearing) is not a straightforward assessment. It is not simply a matter of age – when is too young to be involved will depend on the individual and the issues in dispute. Presumptions about capacity can be misleading and disempowering. The nature of an individual’s needs or extent of their disability is often more about how we enable the participation – eg putting in place the structures and support that allows a young person to participate meaningfully.
In encouraging participation of young people of all ages, we as mediators are taking what has been called a child-focused approach. We work to guidance developed in 2004 for the SEN Mediation Regional Network, ‘The Voice of the Child in SEN Mediation: Guidelines for Practice’ (Shropshire Mediation Services, November 2004). This guidance emphasises the need to identify the purpose of the young person’s involvement – is it primarily to feed back information to the parents and local authority (a welfare approach), or is it to encourage the involvement of the young person (a citizenship approach)?
The welfare approach has been the predominant one in SEND mediation (and also arguably in family mediation). It was only in 2002 that children and young people were allowed to attend tribunal hearings, and even then this was at the discretion of the tribunal. The old 2001 Code of Practice expected local authorities to seek to ascertain the views of children and young people who, it states, ‘will be able to contribute valuable information about themselves and the ways in which they might like their needs to be met’ (s.7.85).
But this approach doesn’t sit well with the rhetoric on children’s rights, which reflects the role of young people as citizens and rights holders. One example is the final report of the Voice of the Child Dispute Resolution Advisory Group (March 2015), which argues that a shift is needed to a child-inclusive, rather than child-focused, approach by mediators. This report looked primarily at mediation of family disputes, but the findings and recommendations are applicable to the SEND context as well. The report states that the Advisory Group found ‘very few children and young people were being provided with the opportunity to have their voices heard during the mediation process. The evidence showed that hearing children’s voices was a minority activity.’
The Group also recognises that ‘embracing child inclusive practice raises questions about the mechanisms that are appropriate for including children and young people, ethical considerations about taking a children’s rights perspective, and implications for meeting the cost of providing this opportunity’ – issues it addresses in the report’s recommendations.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights of children and young people to be involved in decisions which affect them, to have their views listened to and taken seriously and to participate in proceedings. The Children’s Commissioner for England notes how young people’s participation is not only good for young people by improving their confidence, relationships, aspirations and their role as active citizens. As the Commissioner points out, it can help to build trust with adults and can improve decision-making: ‘Children and young people are key to coming up with new and helpful ways to improve their own and other children’s lives.’
Barriers to participation
Many barriers to children’s and young people’s participation in SEN mediation have been identified in research, including psychological damage to the child, the risk that the child may come across as more capable than parents had presented and the length of tribunal hearings. Barriers are also identified, as are ways to address these barriers, in Drummond’s comparative study of children’s participation in SEN tribunals in Northern Ireland and Wales. Many of these barriers and recommendations are relevant for mediation as well as tribunals. Attitudinal barriers about ability to participate reflect often misguided assumptions about capacity, as noted above. Potential conflicts between the views of the young person and her parents can be difficult to reconcile – but not impossible. Concerns about anxiety of the young person, and the need to shield her from negative or sensitive information about her needs, prioritise safety over participation.
These concerns are not unreasonable, but many can be mitigated with process changes, such as incorporating greater flexibility in the structure of meetings and hearings. My experience of conducting mediations of disability discrimination claims brought by disabled students against universities demonstrates to me that it is possible to include young people as full decision-makers in mediation. Those claims were brought by the young person, who attended the mediation and made the decision on settlement of the claim. There is no reason that most young people with SEN or disabilities cannot be the decision-makers in their own claims.
There is no doubt an issue of training – for the judiciary and for mediators – and a need for skilled independent supporters and advocates to work with children and young people and support their decision-making engagement. This research, and the work of the Voice of the Child Dispute Resolution Advisory Group mentioned above, shows that most of the barriers identified are societal ones that need to be addressed by mediation providers and tribunals.
Enabling young people aged 16-25 to participate in decision-making and resolving disputes about SEN is one of our biggest challenges as mediators. The Children and Families Act and new Code of Practice make it essential that we consider how we can address the barriers. Although this is a challenge also faced by the SEND tribunal, it is perhaps more important that in mediation, which fosters an element of collaborative working, young people’s right to make decisions is delineated from the rights of their parents. But this also carries more of a risk in mediation, where the parties themselves, and not tribunal judges, are the decision-makers.
It is not a simple challenge to meet. There is the issue of decision-making capacity and parents’ concerns about their child’s best interests. There is also the unique dynamic between young people and their parents, and between young people and those perceived to be in power, such as local authority officers. Young people may feel coerced into agreement, or their silence might be taken as tacit acceptance. There is the danger that disagreement will occur between the young person and her parents: ‘Mediators may find themselves in the position of eliciting input from a student when the parents do not want the student’s perspective to be considered,’ leading to ‘mediations within mediations’. There are attitudinal and structural problems to overcome, and there is a need for training.
So I don’t suggest this will be easy. But it is necessary, if we’re going to make a place at the table for young people.
 This blog post applies to the SEND framework and legislation in England. As SEN policy is devolved, separate frameworks apply in Northern Ireland, Scotland (where the term Additional Support Needs, or ASN, is used) and Wales. The issue of children and young people’s participation in SEND dispute resolution, however, is relevant UK-wide.
 D Holtom et al (2014), ‘Evaluation of a pilot of young people’s rights to appeal and claim to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales’, The People and Work Unit, Government Social Research No 65/2014.
 Mueller, Melissa, Anita Engiles and Marshall Peter (2003), ‘The Involvement of Students in Their Special Education Mediations’, a briefing paper for The Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE), October, 2003, at www.directionservice.org/cadre/student.cfm.
 See, eg, N Harris, S Riddell, E Smith (2008), ‘Special Educational Needs (England) and Additional Support Needs (Scotland) Dispute Resolution Project: Literature Review’, University of Manchester/University of Edinburgh.
 O Drummond (2016), ‘Access to Justice Barriers for Tribunal Users’, Ulster University.
Making rights worth having: the report of the Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and DisabilityPosted: 27 April 2016
‘We recommend restoring the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s power to arrange the provision of conciliation services for non-employment discrimination claims. The service specification should provide for a range of delivery methods to ensure it is accessible, including provision of face-to-face conciliation, and the service should take direct referrals from the Equality Advisory and Support Service or its replacement.’
Last month the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability reported on its inquiry into the Act and concluded that government inaction is failing disabled people. The inquiry, which started in June 2015, received 144 responses to its Call for Evidence and heard oral evidence from 53 witnesses. The published report sets out the committee’s conclusions on a range of issues including the Public Sector Equality Duty, reasonable adjustments, access to services in transport, housing, and leisure facilities, and enforcement and access to justice. It highlights the barriers to challenging disability discrimination in terms of cuts to legal aid, court and tribunal fees, and procedural changes and notes that rights without enforcement are meaningless: ‘Rights which are unenforceable are not worth having.’
It was particularly heartening to see the Committee’s criticism of the Coalition Government’s weakening of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and its abolition of the EHRC’s power to arrange independent mediation (conciliation) for non-employment cases. I worked as an independent mediator with the original Disability Conciliation Service, set up by the Disability Rights Commission, and its successor, the Equalities Mediation Service. Over the years, from 2001 to 2013, we handled many hundreds of claims alleging disability discrimination in the provision of goods and services.
This provision, the report states, was one of the casualties of the Red Tape Challenge, and it was abolished, with other measures in the Act, because it was considered to place unnecessary or disproportionate burdens on business. The report suggests that the Government should have given the same consideration to measures placing an unnecessary or disproportionate burden on disabled people, and Baroness Deech, chair of the Committee, said: ‘Intended to reduce the regulatory burden on business, the reality has been an increase in the burden on disabled people.’
It’s useful to be reminded of the background of the mediation provision and its demise. From the report:
‘447. The Disability Rights Commission developed a conciliation service to which any complaint arising out of an alleged failure to provide goods or services in a non-discriminatory way under the DDA could be referred for resolution. When the Disability Rights Commission was replaced by the EHRC, section 27 of the Equality Act 2006 gave the EHRC the power to provide conciliation services.
448. In March 2011 the Coalition Government, as part of its examination of public bodies, issued a Consultation Paper putting forward a number of suggestions for changes to the role and functions of the EHRC. One of the questions asked was: “Do you think the Government should repeal the EHRC’s power to make provision for conciliation services, as part of the process of focussing the EHRC on its core functions?” Of the 293 responses received, 61 agreed, 206 disagreed and 26 were not sure. Despite this the Government concluded:
“We have now decided to repeal the EHRC’s power to make arrangements for the provision of conciliation in non-workplace disputes. We do not believe that arranging conciliation services for individual cases fits with the EHRC’s strategic role, or that it is necessary in light of the range of good quality, accessible and effective mediation provision already available throughout England and Wales and Scotland.”
Accordingly section 27 of the Equality Act 2006 was repealed by section 64(1)(b) of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 with effect from 25 June 2013.
449.The EHRC wrote: “The removal (which we opposed) of our statutory power to arrange the provision of conciliation services for non-employment cases is a particular concern for disabled people given that the majority of non-employment discrimination claims are disability cases.” That concern was shared by the Discrimination Law Association, who told us in written evidence: “DLA members advising and supporting disabled people in non-employment discrimination claims have called for re-instatement of the EHRC power to establish a conciliation service.” Most forcefully Nick O’Brien, when asked which two recommendations he would like to see this Committee make, said: “The Disability Rights Commission had a power to arrange for a conciliation service in respect of goods, facilities and services disputes. The need for that, or something similar, has become more acute now that the prospect of taking cases to court—civil cases in the county courts and even in tribunals—is so significantly reduced.”
The committee also considered whether a new disability ombud scheme should be created. Evidence to the committee noted the plethora of existing ombudsman schemes: As our colleague Nick O’Brien stated, ‘the landscape is already quite cluttered … The challenge is to make sure that the existing ombudsmen more selfconsciously use the powers they already have to embed equality and human rights in what they do.’ The committee was persuaded that yet another ombudsman is not needed and that, instead, the mandates of other ombudsmen should be widened explicitly to cover disability issues.
‘461. We recommend that the Government amend the mandates of those regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen that deal with services most often accessed by disabled people to make the securing of compliance with the Equality Act 2010 a specific statutory duty.
Another very useful recommendation relates to data on non-employment discrimination claims. It has been impossible to identify the number of such claims made in county courts because these are not specified. The report recommends:’that HM Courts and Tribunals Service be required to collect from all county courts and from the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and to make publicly available, data relating to disability discrimination claims separately from other claims, as they do in employment tribunals.’
The report overall makes fascinating reading. I look forward to seeing how the Committee’s recommendations are taken forward.
by Varda Bondy and Margaret Doyle In October 2014, we launched (together with Carolyn Hirst) a mapping study titled ‘The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland ’. We discussed at length whether to use the words ‘ombud/s’ or ‘ombudspersons’ rather than ‘ombudsman/men’, but decided on the latter to avoid the title itself becoming the centre of attention rather than the content of the report. However, we felt compelled to touch on this question at the launch, which was attended by a number of ombudspeople as well as academics. After presenting one aspect of our findings, concerning the multiplicity of terms used by schemes to describe the same processes and identical terms to describe different ones, we added a closing remark on the problematic matter of terminology in the use of the term ‘ombudsman’ itself. This included an assertion that the word ‘man’ in…
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Students at private universities are to get the right to take complaints to the sector’s independent adjudicator.
Times Higher Education reports that a clause applying to students in England and Wales was added this week to the Consumer Rights Bill currently making its way through Parliament. It will give students at private higher education institutions in receipt of Student Loans Company funding the right to take unresolved complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) – a right currently only given to students at publicly funded institutions and at the few private institutions that have voluntarily subscribed to the OIA. All students at private providers with at least one course designated for SLC funding will have access to the OIA. The change is intended to take effect on 1 September 2015.
Interestingly, this might also lead to more students having access to mediation for their complaints, if they choose. The OIA is one of a few independent ombuds schemes that uses mediation as one of its complaint-handling tools. In addition to its process of review by its team of adjudicators, it has an external panel of independent mediators. In appropriate situations and with agreement of both parties, the OIA can refer a complaint to mediation. This can be as an alternative to review or, in some cases, once a complaint has been reviewed and the adjudicator upholds it fully or in part. It can be useful, for example, for reaching agreement on actions to remedy a problem and to prevent future problems, particularly where there is an ongoing relationship between student and university.
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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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.