Role of dispute resolution agencies
A diverse range of organisations can be described under the broad heading dispute resolution agencies. They can include public and private organisations, and organisations which cover either State or Commonwealth jurisdictions. They include government departments, industry bodies, Ombudsman's organisations, Commissions and Tribunals.
The diversity in the structures, jurisdictions, and processes of these agencies, together with the various areas of law over which they have coverage, is significant, and indicates their potential use in a wide variety of legal disputes. For instance, government departments can receive complaints in relation to alleged breaches of legislation under their jurisdiction; for example, under the Industrial Relations Act 1996,
the NSW Office of Industrial Relations can take action for a breach of an award or enterprise agreement and recover unpaid entitlements. Community Justice Centres have a different role in that they provide mediation and conflict resolution services. Ombudsman's bodies deal with complaints concerning government services or authorities. The powers of Tribunals are set out in their defining legislation and may include the power to make decisions and review decisions made by others, as well as having a role in education and policy or legal reform. Industry bodies deal with complaints regarding the provision of services within a particular industry, for example, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman is a free and independent alternative dispute resolution scheme for small business and residential consumers who have a complaint about their telephone or Internet service.
Despite the differences in their relevant jurisdictions, and the diversity of their structures, these agencies have many similar functions and features, including the capacity to answer inquiries and to receive, investigate and resolve complaints. They usually have distinct procedures for resolving disputes and complaints. In most cases, their processes are accessible by telephone (at least in the first phase).
One of the key roles of these bodies is to provide an alternative to the dispute resolution process provided by the court system. They provide a way for people to take their dispute or complaint forward without the substantial costs associated with going to court. In addition, they provide a relatively streamlined and straightforward process for the resolution of disputes, which often allows for negotiation between the parties, within an agreed framework and usually mediated by a third party. The importance of these organisations is therefore not only in the accessible low cost framework they provide for conflict resolution, but also in the support they provide to individuals against larger, more powerful disputants.
Because these processes for complaint handling and dispute resolution are generally more accessible than court-based procedures, and cover a wide variety of legal issues, dispute resolution agencies are an important mechanism for improving access to justice for socially and economically disadvantaged people. Indeed, some of these agencies have established specific programs to address the needs of particular groups to further enhance their accessibility.
In his address to the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW Access to Justice and Legal Needs Workshop
in July 2002, Justice Ronald Sackville stated:
Since 1990, a number of important industry-based consumer dispute resolution schemes have been established. These deal each year with many thousands of consumer complaints, for the most part expeditiously, without complainants being at risk of adverse costs orders……These schemes help bridge the divide between the public and private spheres and, if properly monitored and administered, offer the prospect of genuinely effective means of resolving disputes outside the court system.32
One way of determining the extent to which dispute resolution agencies provide an accessible and effective alternative to court-based dispute resolution for disadvantaged groups is by examining the profile of persons accessing these services. Currently there is little research in NSW on the profile of users of dispute resolution agencies. The National Alternative Dispute Resolution Service has carried out research into the collection of data by alternative dispute resolution agencies. However, this research does not appear to cover data on the demographics of service users.33
The purpose of the present study, therefore, is to assess the availability of demographic data on the users of dispute resolution agencies, as a first step in understanding how accessible these bodies are to disadvantaged groups. More specifically, the aim of this study is to examine the demographic data published by these agencies in annual reports and reviews, and if possible, to use these data to begin to build a demographic profile of the service users of these agencies.