No complaints for most after mediation is tried - Vicky Crichton

This month saw the Scottish Government announce the expansion of free mediation services for people involved in civil disputes across Scotland. The investment is recognition of the important role that mediation can play in helping resolve disputes.

That role is often described as ‘alternative’ dispute resolution, with court action the norm. But for many people in many contexts, the stress, cost and time of going through a court process will be overwhelming or entirely out of reach. That’s also recognised in areas where ombudsmen or complaints bodies can help people resolve their concerns about the services they’ve received without having to resort to court action.

It’s not just that this type of approach provides redress for consumers more quickly where that’s the right outcome. Or that it’s often more affordable and cost efficient, both for those using it and those funding it, although both are undoubtedly the case.

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It’s also basic human nature that we tend to feel more satisfied with an outcome when we’ve had a chance to shape it. Negotiating a mutually acceptable resolution that satisfies both parties isn’t always easy. Trained, skilled mediators work hard to bring parties together to see each other’s perspectives and to find common ground and shared interest. It needs everyone taking part to be willing to listen and to focus on solutions.

Vicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints CommissionVicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission
Vicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission

Ultimately though, our experience from holding over 800 mediations between consumers and law firms is that the vast majority are successful in doing just that. We see consumers relieved to have had their concerns heard and acknowledged, and firms welcoming the opportunity to explain why a transaction might not have progressed as their client expected. With so many of the complaints we receive relating to poor communication, just the chance to set that right can often resolve the issue swiftly and to everyone’s satisfaction.

Being able to offer formal mediation alongside our informal attempts to resolve complaints has helped us to increase resolution rates and avoid lengthy, polarising investigations where they aren’t required to resolve the concerns raised.

What we also see, though, is that people can often be confused or concerned about what mediation is or how it works. We’ve recently spoken to consumers who chose not to go ahead with our offer to mediate to see what more we could do to explain how it works and encourage them to give it a try.

We talked about our approach to resolving complaints, including our use of mediation, when we gave evidence in Parliament on the Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill earlier this month. In setting up the SLCC as an independent complaints body, Parliament wanted to create a swift, accessible process for consumers to raise complaints about lawyers. The aim was to provide a way for those concerns to be heard and addressed by a process focused on resolution and putting things right rather than proving who was right or wrong. Those aims still hold true, which is why we’re arguing for reforms to give us greater flexibility to do just that.

Our flexibility to provide mediation has been a core part of our approach, and a real success in helping us resolve complaints swiftly. It encourages a focus on listening, understanding concerns and finding a way forward. It doesn’t stop us directing action where that’s needed, but it gives everyone involved more agency to help find a solution that works for them. We think that’s something we – and others – should cherish and build on.

Vicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission

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