Informal Resolution by Ombudsmen
A mapping study
The aim of this study, which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is to identify and map the various informal resolution approaches used by ombudsmen schemes in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. It is designed to produce a descriptive tool as well as create a foundation for future in-depth research that will further our understanding of how this aspect of the administrative justice system operates and of what is (and should be) considered as best practice in ombudsman work.
The changing context of the dispute resolution landscape and the increasing overlaps among ombudsmen, tribunals, the courts and other complaint handlers indicate a pressing need to examine the way that ombudsmen operate.
Ombudsmen were originally set up to investigate complaints in a way that addressed the power imbalance between citizens and consumers and the public or commercial bodies complained against. Over the past decade, many ombudsmen have developed a range of methods of informal resolution with an emphasis on consensual settlement, representing a significant shift away from their original authoritative formal investigations format. This has occurred on an ad hoc basis, with little apparent formality or coordination between schemes. As a result, surprisingly little is known about how these informal approaches work in practice, what principles and criteria are applied, and to what effect.
The apparent absence of consistency and transparency can give rise to concerns over the widespread (and increasing) use of informal approaches that are not subject to scrutiny in the way that published reports of investigations or determinations can be. Who ‘owns’ the complaint and who determines that it is satisfactorily resolved – the ombudsman or the parties to the complaint? Who decides whether a complaint is to be resolved informally rather than investigated, and what could this mean for complaints that might be in the public interest to investigate?
About this project
The researchers used questionnaires and interviews to identify and map the informal resolution approaches used by ombudsmen schemes in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Early findings were presented at the Foundation of Law Justice and Society’s conference in Oxford on 30 April 2014, and a report was published in October 2014. The report is here: The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland.
We are now preparing for follow-up seminars and producing sector-specific case studies.
The project is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, under a grant administered by De Montfort University.
Varda Bondy (Senior Research Fellow at De Montfort University, former Director of Research at the Public Law Project)
Carolyn Hirst (Independent Consultant and Lecturer in Ombudsman and Complaint Handling Practice at Queen Margaret University)
Margaret Doyle (Independent Consultant and Mediator)
January – July 2014 (initial mapping study)
January 2015 – January 2016 (follow-up work)