Making redress accessible for consumers and citizens

Models of redress design throughout Europe are diverse, but in the UK this diversity also reflects a fragmented and confusing landscape. This is one of the conclusions reached by participants at a workshop held in Edinburgh in June, a report of which has been published by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society.

Designing Consumer Redress: Making Redress Accessible for Consumer-Citizens sets out the findings from the workshop, which was hosted by Queen Margaret University and the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford. Among the recommendations is that the design of redress systems should be informed by principle, not left to the market or to technocratic innovations or incremental tinkering. A focus on users’ needs is crucial, as is a recognition that these needs are not homogeneous and not necessarily compatible with the priorities of redress providers, business and government. More empirical research is required to identify consumer-citizen needs in relation to redress.

The report summarises the presentations given, including a new model of dispute system design (DSD); research on consumer expectations; developments in Scotland; tribunal reform; information, advice and signposting for consumer-citizens; online dispute resolution; and the impact of the EU ADR Directive.

A key theme was making redress mechanisms accessible. There is a concern, however, if increased accessibility automatically equates to increased informality. Picking up on this concern, Carolyn Hirst, a member of the ombudsresearch team and a lecturer at Queen Margaret University, presented the findings from our research on informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland. She explained that, since many ombuds have an administrative justice or civil justice function, an emphasis on informal resolution could deprive wider society of knowledge about complaint outcomes. It can also result in a lack of transparency and accountability and adversely affect precedent setting and learning from complaints. The last point is of particular concern given the recommendation from the report that ombuds schemes in the UK need to have a more significant impact as agents of change.

As one presenter concluded, “An administrative justice system approach as embodied in the ombudsman could enhance access to redress but this may be unlikely if the direction of travel is anti-state and austerity policies and ‘cheap and cheerful’ consumer dispute resolution.”

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