Solving Disputes

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Readers will be familiar with my preoccupation with alternative dispute resolution – especially if you flash back to my postings here – ‘Privatised Courts – where to, where from‘ and ‘Fit for Purpose‘.

With a civil court £100m deficit last year, court fees have had to rise (in one case by 216%). Such rises impact on access to justice for many people. Yet the court issue fee is the least of a litigant’s problems. The biggest is arguably their legal costs at the conclusion of the case.

The only answer to massive legal bills (and the real danger of adverse costs orders against unsuccessful litigants)  is to bypass the legal process altogether; although whilst the courts are open for business, and litigation lawyers strive to make money, this option is not currently realistic.

I have been impressed by recent developments in restorative justice, where those in conflict are encouraged and helped to sort things out between themselves in a civilised way. It is now acknowledged that there are almost no disputes that need to be excluded from this restorative process. Facilitators are arranging meetings in homicide and rape cases, and in long-standing conflicts that have been running for years. Even cases involving highly dangerous perpetrators, those with mental illness, and with children and young people are often deemed suitable for facilitation.

In my view, this is the vision for the future – lawyers and courts standing back, to allow for a more proportionate and appropriate resolution.

It will require a new role for law and for lawyers. Legal rules are there not simply to be known to lawyers and applied by judges in binding outcomes; but should be made available to guide those in dispute towards sensible compromises. The law should act as a framework for a well-ordered life, rather than as technical and incomprehensible set of rules to be adjudicated upon.

Speak to anyone who has been involved in legal processes and they will tell you that justice is always partial. This is because, whilst courts are supposed to be brokers of truth and justice, decisions arise from balances of proof and evidence, and judgments are frequently arbitrary. Once in the legal process, the litigants surrender all real power over outcomes, and remain in the hands of one individual, with that person’s limitations and prejudices. Not all judges are good judges, and not all of their decisions are correct. And to correct a poor decision by appeal takes time and often a considerable amount of money.

Firms of lawyers and barristers’ chambers should offer and provide proper ‘Dispute Resolution Centres’ – a place to which the protagonists can turn for considered and proportionate advice, and from which they are not expelled into an adversarial forum. Joint legal opinions and advice would form the first step helping the ‘parties’ to understand a framework for settlement. After that would come the facilitation stage – not necessarily managed by and restricted to the lawyers – but perhaps overseen by expert dispute brokers. And if issues remained, those in dispute would access simple adjudication by way of joint expert decision or arbitration.

Dispute Resolution Centres could operate on the basis of fixed fees without ‘issue costs’, teams of warring layers, and vitriolic letters – providing a ‘one-stop-shop’ to contain and resolve conflict.

For those that doubt the concept, remember, if lawyers do not take this initiative now, others may do so to their exclusion.

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