2003 ADR in Ombudsman schemes
Key findings from research done for the British and Irish Ombudsman Association into the use of alternative dispute resolution processes by ombudsman schemes.
This page contains an outline of this research, and a summary of the key findings. Details of how to find the full report can be found at the bottom of the page.
“The Use of ADR in Ombudsman Processes: Results of a survey of members of the British and Irish Ombudsman Association”
What is it?
The paper is a compilation of the results of a survey of ombudsmen and independent complaints handlers. The aim of the survey was to determine what alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes are being used by ombudsmen and to contribute to the development of good practice advice for ombudsmen.
Who did it?
The survey was conducted by Margaret Doyle and was published on the British and Irish Ombudsman Association (BIOA) website in March 2003. It involved a questionnaire sent to BIOA member organisations. The number surveyed was small (17 out of 39 responded); however, some general conclusions can be drawn.
The author welcomes the use of ADR by ombudsmen if it serves the interests of four key stakeholders:
- the ombudsman service
- organisations complained about
- the general public
However, a number of concerns were raised, in particular:
- is ADR a process that parties enter into voluntarily, and in an informed way?
- do both parties consent to an agreement reached through ADR, or is it simply “recommendation without investigation” by the ombudsman?
- can the ombudsman influence good practice in the organisations complained about if unpublished private local settlements become the norm?
The survey also found that definitions of the various ADR processes are needed, as ombudsmen use the terms in different ways. For example, many ombudsmen refer to their informal resolution process as “mediation”. However, mediation allows the parties to reach their own, mutually agreed settlement. In informal resolution it is the ombudsman who determines whether a settlement is appropriate, and what the terms of the settlement should be.
Among the other key findings of the survey are:
- Nearly every ombudsman service offers – and is placing increased emphasis on – some form of informal resolution
- In some ombudsman services 100% of complaints are resolved through the use of an ADR process
- Ombudsman schemes use a wide variety of different ADR processes
- Only one ombudsman scheme uses arbitration
The full report - The Use of ADR in Ombudsman Processes
The Parliamentary Ombudsman has issued a report highlighting the serious consequences of seemingly minor errors by public bodies. “Small mistakes, big consequences” (November 2009) describes several case studies of complaints determined by the ombudsman in which failure to get a decision right at the start, compounded by failure to remedy the mistake promptly and effectively, has had a devastating impact on individuals.
Among the case studies is one in which both the Child Support Agency (CSA) and the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) are criticised. Mr U had wrongly been identified by the CSA as the non-resident parent of two children, and despite his disputing this claim, and despite the CSA accepting it had made an error, it took several years before the agency notified him of this. He had been forced to consult solicitors, his marriage had broken down and he had lost the trust of his children.
The CSA eventually offered him inadequate compensation, and he complained to the ICE about this. The ICE had then wrongly informed him that the compensation offered was the maximum possible. The Parliamentary Ombudsman found maladministration by both the CSA and the ICE. She recommended he be given an apology from both, and that the CSA pay him compensation of £10,000, and the ICE pay him compensation of £250.
This case illustrates the importance of a further rung of scrutiny of the decisions made by independent adjudicators of government agencies. Although the robustness of ICE decisions generally has not been questioned by the ombudsman, in this case they did get it wrong. The case also illustrates the persistence that is required by complainants in order to navigate the many layers of the “super-escalated” complaints procedure involving decisions by public bodies.
Other case studies involve the HM Revenue and Customs, including complaints about tax credits, and Jobcentre Plus regarding a complaint about jobseeker’s allowance.
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