Book review: OMBUDSMEN AND ADR: A Comparative Study of Informal Justice in Europe by Naomi CreutzfeldtPosted: July 6, 2018
By Carolyn Hirst
I am delighted to have been asked to review this book by Naomi Creutzfeldt, who is an academic and researcher whose work I greatly value and respect. For someone who works as a pracademic, and so benefits from understanding both the practice and theory of ombuds work, this book is a welcome addition to the literature. For me, it is now part of a triumvirate of essential ombuds reading, along with my prevailing ‘go to’ sources of Conducting Administrative, Oversight & Ombudsman Investigations by Gareth Jones and The Ombudsman Enterprise and Administrative Justice by Buck, Kirkham and Thompson.
This book has a Foreword from Carrie Menkel-Meadow – true endorsement indeed – who acknowledges that it is an important book and says that “The findings of this superb research project have enormous implications for how we are currently reimagining how dispute resolution and legal redress may be achieved.”
And it is the case that this book packs a vast amount of information, opinion and comment into its 192 pages. There is an introductory Chapter on Ombudsmen and Informal Justice, with the substance of the book being divided into three sections: Part 1 Setting the Scene, Part II Empirical Discoveries and Part III The Future of Informal Justice Systems. There is also an excellent and very useful Bibliography.
I did struggle a bit with the book’s premise that ombuds and ADR are one and the same. Yes, ombuds are an alternative to the courts. But I think that public-sector ombuds, with their focus on administrative justice and use of inquisitorial investigation to reach decisions which often have a public interest, are a distinct form of dispute resolution. I am more accepting of the ADR premise for ombuds whose aim is to resolve complaints to the satisfaction of the parties – although I acknowledge, as is said a few times in the book, that the public/private ombuds divide is increasingly blurry.
And a minor quibble is that the book has a narrower focus than the title suggests. However, at the outset Naomi Creutzfeldt does explain that her book sets out to answer two main questions: what explains users’ perceptions of fairness and trust in ombudsman institutions; and how cultural frameworks influence citizens’ use of ombudsmen. So, in essence, this book explores how ordinary people experience informal justice.
‘In essence, this book explores how ordinary people experience informal justice’
There is a fascinating research ‘puzzle’ described on page 55 relating to the annual reports of ombuds stating clearly that the outcome a person receives from their case determines their overall experience with the ADR provider. The puzzle here is that this appears to contradict the well-regarded and accepted findings of Tyler and others relating to procedural justice. Creutzfeldt goes on to explore this puzzle by combining an analysis of the rapidly developing literature on procedural justice and legal consciousness with the empirical findings from her study of Ombudsmen in the UK and Germany. This study is engrossing. It looks at national patterns and cross-national comparisons of private ombuds in the UK and Germany, and at the public/private divide in the UK by looking at a sample of ombuds from each sector.
Findings include that German and UK complainants have different complaint motivations – with the former being more focused on getting back their money/what was lawfully theirs, and the latter being more concerned about changing the business process and stopping the same problem from happening to others. And that German respondents to the survey were more likely to accept a decision if the outcome was partially or not in their favour.
‘German and UK complainants have different complaint motivations – with the former being more focused on getting back their money/what was lawfully theirs, and the latter being more concerned about changing the business process and stopping the same problem from happening to others.’
When considering private and public ombuds in the UK, the study finds that those who have used a private-sector ombuds appear to trust it more, are more convinced that the ombuds is acting lawfully, have more confidence in the ombuds and feel a moral obligation to follow the decision. Creutzfeldt relates these findings to the different attitudes to law and ADR in Germany and the UK, with UK ombuds providing a less formal and less legalistic process than their German counterparts. She writes well and convincingly about legal socialisation, but I question to what extent people actually choose their preferred way of dispute resolution. Often, in the UK at least, people have no real choice as complaints processes – at least in the public sector – lead inexorably to an ombuds.
In the final Chapter (9 Conclusion: Paths for Theory and Research) Creutzfeldt describes how throughout the book she has developed an argument that “our consciousness around ‘alternatives’ to formal legality is rooted in our national legal socialisation and lived (and constantly redefined) through our legal consciousness”. She also suggests that our expectations about ADR are guided by our pre-existing attitudes towards the formal system. It would be illuminating to explore these expectations both before and after the use of an ADR process, to see whether they are altered or reinforced. The book ends with reflections on the future development of ADR in Europe around three related areas: Ombudsmen and ADR Design, vulnerable consumers and the challenges of the digital.
I think this book will be of interest to researchers, students and practitioners who work for or have an interest in ombuds. I found Chapter 2, with its concise and informative summary of Europe’s Justice Systems, to be of particular value, although as an adopted Scot I would have liked to have seen a bit more about our own system of justice. I also welcomed the clarity and explanation around what ombuds are and do, and in Chapter 6 there is a useful identification and description of the normative roles that people expect of ombuds (these being the roles of Interpreter, Advocate, Ally and Instrument).
If you would like to read a different review of this book, then my esteemed colleague Nick O’Brien has one published on the UKAJI website. We are thinking about starting an Administrative Justice Book Club.
And a remaining puzzle for me relates to the book cover image – what appears to be an old, battered and apparently empty suitcase. What does this signify? Answers on a postcard.
Naomi Creutzfeldt, Ombudsmen and ADR: A Comparative Study of Informal Justice in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
About the author:
Carolyn Hirst is an Independent Dispute Resolver and Housing Mediation Project Worker, University of Strathclyde.
We often hear about the ‘user journey’ and putting users at the heart of the justice system. For ombud schemes, ‘users’ are both complainants and the complained about, and generally feedback is sought from both groups. It is complainants, however, who tend to be the most vocal about their dissatisfaction with their experience of ombuds – using Twitter and other social media to voice their concerns. (Complained-about organisations, such as those subject to the Financial Ombudsman Service and Legal Ombudsman, are also vocal but tend to use other mechanisms and channels.)
But what do we really know about complainants’ views? Most ombuds carry out customer satisfaction surveys to gain insight into how people feel about the process used to handle their complaint and the outcome achieved. Most also have processes for reviewing complaints about the service provided, and a few have a mechanism to review ombud decision when these are challenged. Much of that work remains in the shadows and little is in the public domain, making it difficult to analyse how these numbers reflect the experience of complainants overall and to ascertain the extent to which service complaints and challenges to decisions actually make a difference.
What does the research tell us?
There is little research on the systemic impact of customer satisfaction and service complaints. In Benchmarking the Legal Ombudsman, the Legal Services Consumer Panel compared the Legal Ombudsman with several other UK ombuds schemes using a series of indicators grouped under four headings: caseload, timeliness, quality and cost. In its section on quality, the Panel highlighted that although some ombud schemes publish customer survey results in full, the practice of most is to include only a selection of statistics in annual reports. That benchmarking survey also suggested that a mechanism for externally reviewing service complaints can have a positive impact on improving the quality of investigations, but this was anecdotal.
A very different type of study of complainants’ experience is the 2008 research by Sharon Gilad on case handlers in the Financial Ombudsman Services. Gilad explored the issue of complainant expectations from the case-handler perspective – enquiring what complaint handlers do, what they try to achieve, and what strategies they employ. She suggests that by enhancing complainants’ trust in, and satisfaction with, unfavourable decisions, an expectations management approach may reinforce rather than reduce the inclination to complain in future.
…rather than merely “cooling out” complainants, this form of legitimization may actually enhance citizen-consumer voice… Rather than provoking them to pursue their dissatisfactions further in the public sphere, off-putting bureaucratic encounters resulted in applicants’ apathy and withdrawal.
Gilad’s analysis suggests that complaint handlers perceived communicating adverse decisions to complainants in a sensitive and persuasive manner as one of the key challenges of their role. When complaint handlers and complainants had differing assessments of complaints, the complaint handlers focused on managing expectations – specifically managing what they perceived as the public’s excessive or unrealistic expectations from financial firms and the ombudsman.
In November last year, the Patients Association published a report on complainants’ dissatisfaction with the Health Service Ombudsman. The ‘People’s’ Ombudsman: How it failed us sets out what the Association perceives as major failings in the way the ombud works. Key among its findings are criticisms of the ombud’s approach to evidence and the overall poor quality of its decision making. It argues that investigations are not diligent, robust or thorough, evidence is ignored, and mistakes are made, leading to re-investigations.
‘We offered to send them the set of medical records we had so that the Review team could compare them with their own. The Review Team said this was not necessary as they would ‘only be looking at the complaint handling’ and not at the original complaint.’
The report’s case-study evidence is powerful but is limited; it’s unclear how indicative the experiences reported on are of wider experiences or what the scale of the problem is.
How to approach research on complainants?
So how can we get a better sense of what complainants themselves think of ombuds? Getting access to individuals and to real cases is not an easy task for researchers – confidentiality, data protection, and ethical issues are all potential obstacles.
This week the UK Administrative Justice Institute published two blog posts about the issue, from different perspectives. One is from Della Reynolds, the co-ordinator of the PHSO Pressure Group, which works with complainants who are dissatisfied with the Health Service Ombudsman. The other is from an academic researcher at University of Oxford, Naomi Creutzfeldt, who has been exploring the issue of complainants’ trust in ombuds across the EU.
Reynolds lists a number of common obstacles faced by complainants:
- lack of communication
- manipulation of the facts
- factual error
- staff away on leave regularly or case passed between staff so you start again with new case worker
- blanket statements from staff which do not address key points raised
- acceptance of statements made by public body at face value
- refusal to release details of clinical advisor used – report written by clinical advisor – questions asked of clinical advisor or evidence supplied to clinical advisor
- no action taken if a service delivery complaint made
- any complaint made about the decision will be met with suggestion to go to judicial review
She describes the feelings of helplessness and righteous anger that complainants experience when faced with a failure to obtain a remedy from the ombuds. She proposes that a case study approach would provide much-needed insight – following a number of cases from initial complaint to outcome, using questionnaires (and possibly interviews) to get a full picture of the ‘journey’ of the complainant.
‘Like a badly aggrieved child you approach your parent ombudsman with tales of woe and the evidence to prove it, only to be told that it is just your ‘perception’ of injustice.’
Creutzfeldt’s EU-wide project involves surveying complainants who used ombud schemes and has published her findings in country-specific reports. She writes that ‘Despite the significance of ombudsmen to our constitutional and civil justice landscapes, very little is known about users’ perceptions of the fairness of the procedures and practices and the significance of these perceptions for levels of trust in particular ombudsman offices.’
Her comparative study (she has published a number of country-specific reports) included work on five ombud schemes in the UK: two of its public-sector ombudsmen (Local Government Ombudsman and Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman) and three private ombudsmen covering five sectors (Legal Ombudsman, Financial Ombudsman Service and Ombudsman Services covering property, energy and telecoms). She has gathered and analysed data on complainants’ views at first contact stage and about the process and outcome, as well as overall satisfaction.
Among her findings is that, in both private-sector and public-sector ombuds, complainants’ expectations are too high from the outset.
‘I believed that they had the “teeth” to resolve what seemed to be a straightforward case of an erroneous transfer which I simply couldn’t resolve however hard I tried.’
She also found a marked difference in levels of dissatisfaction for those using public-sector ombuds: overall 57% of those in public schemes felt the procedure was ‘somewhat unfair’ or ‘very unfair’, compared to a quarter of those in private schemes.
The increased tendency of complainants to use social media as a mechanism to voice their dissatisfaction means that we know more about those who had a poor experience than those who had a positive one. This is an issue to be considered in another research project, currently being conducted by Creutzfeldt with Chris Gill of Queen Margaret University, on dissatisfied complainants who have set up online protest groups to highlight concerns about ombudsman schemes and campaign for change.
We would be interested to hear of other research that has been or is being carried out on complainants’ experiences. Please get in touch using the Comments facility on this blog.
We know a bit about what ombudsmen and other complaint-handlers think about using informal resolution approaches. In our mapping study, The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland, we asked ombudsmen why they use informal resolution. The answers tended to fall into one of two camps: because they are required or expected to do so by statute, or because it is simpler and quicker. The latter responses included acknowledging that speed can be a benefit for parties as well as for the ombudsman. Some also mentioned the added benefit of informal resolution helping to maintain or rebuild relationships between the complainant and the complained-about.
For the most part, however, views of what parties themselves think about the processes ombudsmen use to handle their complaints are conjecture or are gleaned from customer satisfaction research, complaints feedback, and other sources that have some limitations in terms of self-selection of samples and how robust the findings are.
A closer look: legal complaints
An interesting view of how informal resolution can benefit complainants and complained about in different ways appears in the Annual Report published yesterday by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). The report states:
“We prefer to resolve complaints by brokering an agreement between the lawyer and the complainant. Therefore, our investigators attempt to settle complaints as amicably as they can, while bringing both parties (both the lawyer and the client) to a swift and mutually beneficial resolution. We call this “informal resolution”.
Where an informal resolution cannot be reached, either party may ask an ombudsman to make a final decision. At this stage the resolution will be based less on resolving the complaint amicably and more on what is deemed fair and reasonable.”
LeO reports that last year it resolved 39% of complaints informally (a slight decrease from the year before). Almost the same number (38%) were resolved by ombudsman decision. (The remaining 24% were either withdrawn or dropped by the complainant or discontinued by an ombudsman.) LeO expresses its disappointment that more complaints are not resolved informally:
“This is not the outcome we had hoped for, but as we have said in previous Annual Reports, the complexity of legal complaints means that often people want to exhaust all options before accepting a decision.”
The figures suggest there are more financial remedies agreed at the informal stage (67%) than recommended by ombudsman decision (40%). Most financial remedies are less than £1,000 (30% of ombudsman decisions, and 40% of informal resolutions).
The difference between outcomes of the two processes is most marked in the remedy ranges of £1,000 to £19,999: 9% of ombudsman decisions were in this range, but 17% of informal resolutions were.
‘In our view, these figures suggest that complainants do as well when accepting an investigator’s recommendation and opt for an informal resolution as they do when insisting on an ombudsman’s decision. It may also reflect an increase in the number of lawyers offering reasonable remedies at the first tier, which, if true, is a positive development.’
Good for complainants – what of the complained-about?
But for lawyers the opposite might be true. As Legal Futures has pointed out, in the report LeO urges
‘lawyers to think twice before pushing for formal decisions rather than accepting informal resolutions to complaints, even though the figures showed that the outcome of the former was less likely to result in the lawyer having to pay the client some money.’
LeO suggests that for lawyers, the advantages of informal resolution are in saving time and avoiding reputational risks. The report states:
‘While lawyers might be tempted to hold out for an ombudsman’s decision, they should factor in the additional time and resource they will have to put into managing the complaint and accept that the customer is likely to walk away feeling even less positive about their firm with the increased risk to their reputation that this entails.’
Yet another risk to informal settlements for parties complained about has been highlighted in relation to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). An article last autumn in the financial press highlighted a loophole arising from court ruling on a FOS case, relating to whether a complainant can pursue further redress against a financial firm after a FOS decision:
‘The problem lies in the word “award”, which specifically applies to final and binding orders issued by an ombudsman reviewing a case.
In order to go before an ombudsman, a Fos complaint will first be reviewed by an adjudicator which would recommend a resolution. It is only passed on if either party rejects the recommendation.‘
The article suggested that if parties agree to an informal settlement (by adjudicator recommendation), the complainant could still be free to pursue more redress in court. It advises financial advisers (those complained about) to insist on either an ombudsman decision (so getting a final award that doesn’t leave them open to being sued for more, but risking being ‘named and shamed’) or a settlement via adjudicator that makes it clear it’s in full and final settlement.
Seeking parties’ views
Our mapping study found that very few ombudsman schemes ask their users for feedback specifically about informal resolution, though one reported that its ‘customer satisfaction research consistently shows informal investigations are the most popular type of investigation’ with both parties. Service complaints from users can also provide feedback on the processes used to handle complaints. Another ombuds reported that feedback on its informal resolution processes is generally positive, although some complainants question whether it treats the respondent service provider too softly.
The lack of information is striking when, as we found, most ombudsmen use informal resolution processes, and some for as much as 80% of the complaints they handle. We note in our report of the mapping study that there are calls for greater consistency in customer satisfaction reporting among UK ombudsmen. We also note, however, that the EU ADR Directive does not appear to contain any specific requirement to introduce customer satisfaction surveys or to gather feedback on case-handling processes.
It seems clear that research is needed on what users of ombuds schemes – both complainants and complained-about – think of processes used for complaints, and the outcomes they achieve.