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Dispute Resolution Outside of Courts: What We Expect of Ombuds in the UK

Naomi Creutzfeldt, University of Westminster & Ben Bradford, University of Oxford

Our article in the 50th anniversary LSR no 4 explored how people in the UK think about ombuds services and what encourages them to accept the decisions reached during dispute resolution processes.
Much empirical evidence points towards the importance of trust and legitimacy in generating acceptance of the decisions made by legal authorities. Moreover, people seem to be more attuned to the quality of the process concerned rather than the outcome it delivers. The procedural fairness of legal authorities – the extent to which they make decisions in an unbiased fashion and adhere to principles of dignity, respect and voice – has consistently been found to be a more important predictor of trust, legitimacy and decision acceptance than the outcomes they provide.
This research has mainly taken place in the context of the police and courts. However, one reason for the importance of procedural fairness may be the social, cultural and practical power of these institutions. The fairness with which this power is used is an important question for many people.   Much less attention has been paid to institutions that provide informal dispute resolution, like ombuds, whose status as legal institutions is much more recent and uncertain.
            Ombuds deal with complaints from ordinary citizens and consumers about most public bodies (e.g. healthcare), and in relation to the provision of goods and services in the private sector (e.g. telecoms, financial services, energy). The services provided by ombuds are free of charge to citizens, meaning that ombuds are accessible to individuals who could not afford a court case.
            Working with ombuds services in the UK we fielded a survey aimed at people who had recently been through a dispute resolution process. We asked questions about their perceptions of the fairness of the procedures used by the ombuds and the outcomes the ombuds was able to deliver. For this paper we analyzed those questions using a sample of 1,306 recent ombuds users.
            Our results show that people’s overall perceptions of the case in which they were involved, and of the ombuds service concerned, are influenced by perceptions of both process and outcome. If people get the outcome they expect from an ombuds, they think the procedure is fair and will then accept the decision they have been given. But, equally, if they feel the process was conducted in a fair manner they are more likely to accept the decision even if it went against them. There are many factors that motivate people to accept ombuds decisions. – this is not a case of either/or – yet outcome does appear to be more important to users of ombuds services than it is in the case of, for example, citizens encounters with police officers.
One reason for this may be that ombuds services mean less to people at a symbolic or ideological level than the police and courts, making them more transactional and instrumental during this type of dispute resolution process. If it is the symbolic as much as the actual power of the police that makes people so attuned to the procedural fairness of police officers, it may be that the ombuds institution has yet to establish itself in peoples’ minds as an institution similar in nature to the police and courts.

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