Latest policy briefs urge ombudsmen to "bridge the gap" in civil justice for consumers

17 July 2014

The Chief Ombudsman of the Ombudsman Service Lewis Shand Smith has responded to recent reforms to legal aid and European legislation on consumer dispute resolution by urging ombudsman schemes to “bridge the gap in the delivery of civil justice”, in a policy brief published by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society.
The publication, along with another policy brief to emerge from an international conference of ombudsmen, consumer groups, business leaders, and academic experts held in Oxford earlier this year, assesses the major shifts being felt across the civil justice landscape in the UK, and makes a number of recommendations for the future of consumer dispute resolution.
In the policy brief, published in association with Ombudsman Services, Shand Smith assesses the implications of recent measures by the European Parliament to improve access to justice for citizens in the European single market, which requires Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) entities to be available for all business-to-consumer disputes. The measures, due to be implemented before the next UK general election in 2015, will have significant implications for the administration of civil justice and the resolution of disputes between consumers and business. 
Shand Smith argues that, “The drastic cuts effected in legal aid mean that the risks of using courts and tribunals are greater, with complainants choosing to represent themselves in an unfamiliar arena, leading to cases taking longer and with greater chance of failure”. He cites the work of the financial ombudsman in providing redress for the many people affected by payment protection insurance (PPI) as one example of an ombudsman providing an alternative to the courts, and calls on ombudsman schemes, “to take up the gauntlet of justice in the British Isles”.

The drastic cuts effected in legal aid mean that the risks of using courts and tribunals are greater, leading to cases taking longer and with greater chance of failure

He proposes that, by harmonizing services and making their role clearer to the public, ombudsman schemes can not only deliver justice for consumers, but also help business and policymakers to improve their services and decision-making by providing feedback on the nature and cause of complaints received. Shand Smith concludes that, “It is time to recognize that the ombudsman is no longer an alternative to the courts, but an essential and integral part of the justice system.”

It is time to recognize that the ombudsman is an essential and integral part of the justice system

Last month saw the publication of a report of the conference, entitled Trusting the ‘Middle Man’: Impact and Legitimacy of Ombudsmen, held at Wolfson College in April. The report, written by the conference organizers Dr Naomi Creutzfelt from the University of Oxford and Chris Gill from Queen Margaret  University, Edinburgh, summarizes the discussions from the conference and outlines a series of findings to emerge.

Findings and recommendations:

  • The reputation of dispute resolution schemes will be subject to increasing pressures as higher case loads, more demanding consumers, and technological change lead to greater scrutiny by consumers and the public at large.
  • There is a lack of clarity in informal processes used by ombudsman and ADR schemes and a need to develop a more coherent way of explaining ombudsman and ADR models to the public.
  • The ombudsman brand should be consolidated and processes harmonized to raise awareness among consumers of the services they offer and the mechanism for dispute resolution available to them.
  • If consumers and businesses are to trust the process, there must be consistency of outcome among similar consumer complaints. Ombudsman schemes must publish data which includes decisions on particular cases or types of cases, the process by which they are reached, the reasons for those decisions, and any recommendations or actions required.
  • Ombudsman and ADR schemes should develop processes that account for the emotional responses of consumers as well as producing technically correct decisions, and continue to track and respond to changes in consumer demand.
  • Ombudsman schemes can influence the behaviour and decision-making of businesses by feeding back on poor performance, and by issuing guidance on how to improve.
  • More sophisticated and commonly shared frameworks for evaluating ombudsman and ADR schemes are required in order to provide public assurance of their effectiveness, as well as to defend them from unfair criticism and provide greater opportunities for shared learning and improvement across the sector. 

A selection of podcasts from the conference are available from the links on the right, and the policy briefs can be downloaded from the links below.
Harmonizing the Ombudsman Landscape
Lewis Shand Smith, Chief Ombudsman of the Ombudsman Service, with Nial Vivian
The Impact and Legitimacy of Ombudsman and ADR Schemes in the UK
Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt, University of Oxford and Chris Gill, Queen Mary University, Edinburgh