I’m thrilled that I’ve been certified by the Elder Mediation International Network (EMIN) as an elder mediator, having completed my training (in two years, during Covid, no less!) and successfully fulfilling the robust accreditation criteria and process of this important international network.
‘Congratulations to Margaret Doyle who has just successfully completed all the requirements for the beginning level of Elder Mediation International Certification. Margaret becomes the first Elder Mediator in England to achieve the newly established Cert.EM designation!’https://elder-mediation-international.net/meet-emins-latest-cert-em-advanced-recipient-2-3/
As a network, EMIN raises awareness of elder mediation as an important area of specialist mediation expertise and, through its certification process, ensures that certified mediators adhere to a code of ethics and conduct their practice to a consistent, credible, recognised international standard.
Age in the UK
And to be the first mediator certified by EMIN in England is the icing on the cake (not the first in the UK – the first UK-based EMIN mediator is in Northern Ireland).
The field of elder mediation isn’t well known in the UK, but it’s thriving elsewhere in the world – including Canada, the US, and Australia. Yet the issues that elder mediation focuses on – ageing and all the pleasures and pains that go with it – are as pressing here as in most countries across the world. According to the Office for National Statistics, UK life expectancy at birth in 2018 to 2020 was 79.0 years for males and 82.9 years for females. Our population is ageing, with our demographics shifting towards older ages because of declining fertility rates and people living longer. The ONS projects that by 2032, nearly 20% of the population in the UK will be of pension age or older.
These projections aren’t uniform across the UK. As the Resolution Foundation has explained, in its report Ageing Fast and Slow, Britain has experienced demographic divergence, with older places ageing faster than younger ones and younger places getting old at a slower pace (or actually getting younger).
Such demographic divergence matters for local government, the Foundation points out. It also matters for the services for older people administered by local government, because ‘revenue streams often do not match well with the service requirements of local populations of very different – and ever more different – ages’. There are tensions built into demographic change and divergence in the UK, tensions that can lead to disagreement and dispute.
What is old?
What is ‘old’ is a fluid and contentious topic. Here in the UK, ‘old’ might be over 50, the age at which we become eligible for sheltered accommodation. Or it might be 60, when those of us who live in London become eligible for a ‘Freedom Pass’ allowing free travel on tubes and buses. Or it might be the age at which we can start taking our state pension – for some that’s still 65, but for younger groups it’s 66, 67, and going up all the time. Or ‘old’ might be 70, the proverbial three score and ten, or 80, the age at which people were required to shield in the first lockdown of the pandemic.
I’m not overly concerned to define ‘old’, nor am I keen on terms like ‘elder’, and certainly not ‘the elderly’. What I am concerned with is that as we age, we are well supported to live the lives we want to live and we aren’t dismissed, patronised, or excluded. This isn’t about autonomous independence, but about relational independence: living as independently as we want to within reciprocal relationships, whether those be relationships of care or friendship, at home or within our communities, or with the state agencies with whom we interact.
Why ‘elder’ mediators?
I’ve been a mediator for more than 30 years, and I’ve specialised in disputes involving equalities and specifically disability rights. Although I can now be considered an elder myself, not all mediators are older people, nor do they need to be. But they do need to understand issues and concepts that might not arise in other areas of mediation practice.
The requirements for EMIN certification include being an already accredited mediator and undertaking additional specialist training (70 hours minimum) on issues including elder abuse and safeguarding, family and intergenerational dynamics, legal issues including powers of attorney and guardianship, and dementia. For my area of practice, I need to understand how social care works, including funding of long-term care. And elder mediators need to be curious and engage with questions about how we perceive vulnerability and the way ageism impacts decisions made with and for older people.
How can mediation contribute?
I believe that mediation can contribute to much-needed conversations and ideas about ageing. The underlying principle of participation and supported decision-making is key to mediation. It is also key to the theory, if not always the practice, of work done in social services, health care, including mental health, and disabilities services, including another area in which I work, that of special educational needs and disability rights. The social model of disability rights is one that can be adopted in age rights as well; it moves us away from a medical model, one that focuses on impairment, and explores and addresses the barriers (both physical and attitudinal) that compromise people’s ability to flourish.
Many of the techniques used in mediation are those used in a Strength-Based Approach used by social care professionals, which explores in a collaborative way the entire individual’s abilities and their circumstances rather than making the deficit the focus of the intervention. It is about gathering a holistic picture of the individual’s life, including from their network and other professionals.
So there is a natural affinity between mediation and the interactions between people and the institutions and government bodies involved in social care and health care.
Who uses elder mediation?
Families, friends, community groups, care homes and agencies, hospices and hospitals – all can make use of elder mediation where disagreement about care or decision-making is affecting quality of life and relationships.
It isn’t just about resolving individual disputes and disagreements. It’s a practice and approach that contributes to better listening and more shared experience. It’s also not always about, or only about, ageing; it can also be about intergenerational dynamics and frictions, about fairness between the young and old, and about the need for better, more creative conversations between generations and within communities.
I look forward to working with individuals, communities, and care and health organisations in this new area of practice!
‘Once I went to a store to buy a book about Alzheimer’s disease and forgot the name of it. I thought it was funny. And it was, at the time.’
Nora Ephron, I Remember Nothing
A study published last year found that across the world, 1 in 2 people hold moderately or highly ageist attitudes. It’s no surprise really, especially when you include in ‘ageism’ jokes along the lines of Ephron’s, jokes about memory loss and ‘senior moments’. Face it, we find these funny. Until we don’t. And often we lose our sense of humour when, as Ephron notes, the joke starts to be on us.
In many ways ageism is the last taboo, the tolerated ‘ism’. The report on the study of ageism, published by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations in March 2021, explains how insidious ageism is, worldwide – insidious yet largely unrecognised and unchallenged. Ageism applies to both the young and the old, but there is far more research on how it relates to older people. The report analyses what research exists and what it tells us about how prevalent ageism is, where it happens, the impact on health, well-being and economies, and what we can do about it. Its publication is timely, given what we’ve learned from Covid about ingrained narratives on the perceived vulnerability of older people and the way ‘older people’ have been treated as a homogenous group needing protection, whatever their circumstances or wishes.
Yet the opposite is true. When you’ve seen one older person, you’ve seen one older person. One of the most interesting findings in the report is that that ‘the longer we live, the more different from each other we become, making diversity a hallmark of older age’ (p.19). I see that illustrated in the lives of the older people in my life; regardless of chronological age, they approach life, and risk, very differently, and being older in years does not necessarily mean being more risk averse or frightened.
A global issue on several dimensions
Ageism plays out in three dimensions – the institutional (settings such as health care, the media, education, work), the interpersonal (in attitudes and behaviours) and in ourselves, as self-directed ageism. Unfortunately, most of the research on ageism is carried out in what are considered high-income countries, yet most of the world population lives in low- to middle-income countries. That skews what we know about how ageism plays out. But the report concludes, from the research that does exist, that although ‘ageism’ as a word doesn’t exist in all languages, ageism as a concept exists in most, if not all, cultures.
The study challenges the prevailing belief that cultures in WHO regions of Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific (which include China, India and Japan) have higher esteem for older people than do cultures in Anglophone and European regions. Indeed, sometimes the opposite is found to be true (the report cites examples of the way widows are treated in some societies, and the prevalence of accusations of witchcraft against older women in others). The report notes that in some societies, limits were placed on older people’s access to health care and treatments for Covid, as a form of rationing limited resources, or their access to public spaces and transport, as a means of protection. Here in the UK, ageism was inherent in the classification of all people over 70 as ‘vulnerable’ in the Health Protection Regulations for coronavirus published in 2020. That classification, and the guidance to shield at home, has been identified as a potential form of age discrimination. But the issue is complex, and the research raises questions, so in the end, the report notes, it’s inappropriate to make any sweeping generalisations about ageism and cultural norms.
Covid also exposed the narrative pitting one generation against another. In terms of the effect of restriction measures and lockdowns, for example, the vulnerability of the old was set against the mental health needs of the young. The hashtag #boomerremover appeared as a reference to Covid as a leveller, taking out the generation that had sucked up all the resources and left younger people high and dry. The WHO/UN report found that nearly one-quarter of all tweets concerning older adults during Covid has been classified as ageist.
Mediation and ageism
Although it’s not mentioned specifically in the report among the strategies for combatting ageism, I think mediation has a valuable place in countering these narratives, fostering intergenerational exchanges, and challenging ageism in both institutional and interpersonal contexts. Its potential lies in the local and individual, in community relationships rather than broader sociopolitical change. Yet its grassroots influence could lead to wider sustainable change in the ageist narrative.
In elder mediation we adopt techniques of what is known as a strength-based approach, focusing on the abilities people have and not on their weaknesses, identifying sources of resilience. This doesn’t only mean strengths that people have within themselves, and it doesn’t mean ignoring capacity challenges. It’s a fact that ageing can be associated with losses that can require support – losses in mobility, cognition, memory, physical strength. But strength can also be in the resources and support that people can draw on. Autonomy is something we often need help to attain, and it isn’t a worthwhile ambition if it can only be achieved alone.
Mediators also recognise that vulnerability is universal; we are all vulnerable in different ways and at different times. In a recent session I led with mediators on the topic of working with older people, we explored this notion of vulnerability, and I was struck by what one participant said about recognising that everyone in a dispute situation is vulnerable – even the mediator. As legal academic Jonathan Herring has noted, we should be thrilled about this. It helps us to focus on the relational nature of vulnerability – the importance of relationships – which gives more scope for generating and working together on solutions.
And mediation is an ideal forum in which to explore everyday ageism. It offers a space for raising questions, for challenging, for educating and bringing about change that is dynamic, responsive, and intensely personal. Among the issues of ageism that I’ve been involved in mediating are those related to housing, to consumer services, and to work. Behind each of these are underlying assumptions about older people that have affected decision-making and behaviours, limited access, constrained older people’s voices – and they have been shown to be wrong assumptions, or misperceptions, requiring clarification.
One possible reason we tolerate ageism is because we have a bias toward the near. This idea is explored by Helen Small, an English professor at Oxford, in her book A Long Life. She discusses this bias toward the near in the context of philosopher Derek Parfit, who argues that this bias is a choice we make, caring more about what is close to us, including what is near to us in time. If we were to take a more neutral approach to time, he suggests, our sense of the limits on our time left as we age would decrease, we would be less depressed by ageing, and we would set ourselves up for a happier old age. Small suggests this is difficult because one of the most pernicious aspects of ageism is self-directed: the fear and pessimism we feel about our own impending old age. It is, she says, in some ways more objectionable than other forms of ageism, and certainly harder to get a moral handle on, ‘because it pretends to a kind of neutrality in including itself as an object of its own negativity’ (p.151).
This self-directed ageism is part of why ageism remains the last taboo. The WHO/UN report tells us why ageism is so different from other ‘isms’. It ‘involves bias against a moving target’; the object of ageism changes as years go by, and we are all susceptible to it if we live to be older. It is, as Caroline Baum writes in The Guardian, ‘unique in targeting our future selves’.
And that’s what makes Ephron’s joke about going into the bookstore so poignant.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.