Resolving disputes following catastrophic events

Australia’s catastrophic fires and weather events have dominated the news cycle for many months now. Fires, dust storms, hail storms and months of poor air quality have affected large tracts of land, including entire rural communities and major cities. Over 18million hectares of land has been burnt throughout the 2019/20 bushfire season already, and nearly 9,000 related insurance claims have been made.

NASA satellite imagery on 4th January 2020 showing bushfires on southeast coast of Australia This file is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“. (See Template:PD-USGovNASA copyright policy page or JPL Image Use Policy.) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2020-01-04_East_Australian_and_Mallacoota_Fires_Aqua_MODIS-VIIRS-LABELS.png

The recovery period will involve many legal and financial claims involving insurers, charitable organisations, government and private citizens. Already many disputes have been reported in the news.

It is likely that many people whose property was lost or damaged were under-insured or not insured at all. Some of these people will find themselves in conflict with their insurers. Consumer group Choice’s advice on home insurance cover for bushfires illustrates many of the issues that may be misunderstood by people who have taken out home insurance and lead to disputes. Insurers have forecast a rise in premiums following the fires.

Renters and landowners may find themselves in dispute over who is responsible for clean-up, whether damaged property is liveable or whether or not the lease can be terminated.

Donations to assist recovery from The Australian bushfires have been made by private citizens and companies both domestically and internationally. Donors expected that their donations would reach their intended recipients quickly and assist with recovery. However, some charities have been criticised for their slowness to distribute funds or aid, and also for the proportion of donations that they have retained for administration costs. Others have been restricted about what purposes they are able to use donations for, and have had to weigh competing priorities. Concerns have been raised about the difference between the intentions of donors and the purposes for which the recipient organisation is able to use the donated funds.

It is also predicted that many business affected by the bushfires will have disputes with their insurance companies over the coming months. Many business owners have “business disruption insurance” or “loss of attraction insurance” but lack clarity about what exactly is covered by these kinds of policy. Indirect consequences of natural disaster may not be sufficiently covered. Some policies cover lost profits and not turnover.

“Profit is very different from turnover,” Keane told The Sydney Morning Herald. “You may get people coming in expecting half a million [in cover] across 12 months and getting much less. The person is quite often incredibly traumatised if claims have gone off track at that point and they feel like it’s them against this massive company.”

https://www.insurancebusinessmag.com/au/news/breaking-news/many-small-businesses-will-likely-face-insurance-disputes-postbushfires-211134.aspx

Several dispute resolution processes are available to assist people to manage post-disaster conflict. Processes applying to insurance and tenancy disputes are explained below.

Disputes between Insurer and Insured

The Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) assists claimants who have a dispute with their insurance company. AFCA has activated a dedicated hotline 1 800 337 4443 to ensure priority service for people affected by the bushfire crisis.They also have a dedicated online information hub and representatives physically in affected areas. AFCA is frequently asked to mediate financial disputes arising from natural disasters, and can assist in relation to business as well as home losses.

“AFCA is an ombudsman service that provides free, fair, and independent help with financial disputes,” said Justin Untersteiner, AFCA chief operating officer. “If you’re affected by the bushfires, and you find yourself in a dispute with your insurer or financial provider about a claim or request for assistance, AFCA can help resolve it. We have special processes that identify and fast-track complaints from people, primary producers and small businesses in impacted communities, so we can assist you to resolve complaints as quickly as possible.”

https://www.insurancebusinessmag.com/au/news/breaking-news/afca-activates-bushfire-support-line-211308.aspx

AFCA has also triggered its significant events response plan in anticipation of damages of around $320 million following the catastrophic hailstorms that affected Melbourne, The Australian Capital Territory and parts of New South Wales on Monday 20th January 2020. The significant events response plan involves early communication with interested parties, and a more streamlined and expedited dispute resolution process.

Disputes between landowner and tenant

The Tenants Union of NSW has published advice about disaster damage and tenant’s rights. They offer an advice and advocacy service. Unresolved disputes can be referred to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The processes used at NSWCAT include unassisted negotiation, conciliation and Tribunal hearing.

Disaster Legal Help Victoria has published information for tenants and landowners of property affected by disaster. Domestic tenants and landowners can refer disputes to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Commercial tenants and landowners can refer disputes to the Small Business Commissioner for mediation or VCAT. Dispute Resolution services at VCAT include mediation, compulsory conferences and fast track mediation and hearing.

Tenants Queensland has also published information for fire affected tenants and landowners. They offer free legal advice to tenants. Disputes can be referred to the Residential Tenancies Authority for conciliation. Unresolved disputes can be referred to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal for determination.

Legal Aid Tasmania has published information for tenants affected by a natural disaster. Unresolved disputes need to be referred to the Magistrates Court of Tasmania, where conciliation processes are used prior to hearing.

Legal Aid Western Australia has also produced a fact sheet for residential and commercial tenants whose properties have been affected by natural disasters. Residential Lease disputes that the parties are unable to resolve between themselves can be referred to Tenancy WA (advice for residential renters) or the WA Department of Commerce – Consumer Protection for advice, with unresolved disputes going to the Magistrates Court of WA (mediation or determination). Commercial lease disputes can be referred to the Small Business Development Corporation (case management and mediation) or the State Administrative Tribunal (conciliation or determination).

Tenants Union ACT provides natural disaster advice. Disputes can be referred to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal. ACAT uses pre-trial conciliation as well as informal hearing processes.

Potential Cost of Failing to Heal Civilian-Policy Relations: A Comparative Look at the LAPD and NYPD

This post by Mary Riley, PhD Candidate, USC, is based upon a paper that was workshopped at the ADRRN Roundtable 9-10 December 2019.

By Kgbo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72782980

Mediation, incorporating restorative justice principles, is increasingly being used in countries such as the United States of America to resolve civilian complaints against police. In most jurisdictions when civilians have grievances against police officers, they lodge complaints with the relevant police department which internally manages the complaint. Serious allegations are formally investigated while minor complaints are often conciliated, but complainants are often left feeling dissatisfied with the process that affords them no participation. However, the mediation and restorative justice movements have finally infiltrated the bastion of law enforcement. Police departments and oversight agencies are responding to the scientific evidence in the literature that says bringing complainants and police officers face-to-face in a safe and independently mediated forum to openly discuss their perspectives of an incident, is an effective way of resolving conflict. Unresolved conflict between civilians and the police has the potential to generate mistrust of police, which could result in more serious problems such as reluctance to obey the law.

An examination of two of the largest police departments in the United States – the Los Angeles and New York Police Departments, has revealed they are amongst the most high-profile, controversial and scandal-plagued police departments in the world. Since the start of 20th century, these police departments have been at the centre of police corruption inquiries related to prostitution, gambling, bribery, extortion and organised crime. Various public inquiries have resulted in the overhaul of complaints systems and the establishment of mediation programs to provide a fairer resolution process for the public. The police departments are aware of the damage to public confidence caused by police misconduct, and increasingly, racially-biased policing and discourtesy complaints, and have made rebuilding civilian-police relations a priority. 

Yet, two problems exist. The first is the low number of complaints (10% of all complaints lodged) that are referred to mediation; and the second is getting complainants to participate in mediation once contacted. Many complainants are unaware of the mediation option and/or view it with mistrust. They see it as another process organised by agencies closely connected to the police. Yet, for those who do participate, mediation surveys (completed at the end of all sessions) reveal consistently high satisfaction rates with the process, including trust of the mediator and having the opportunity to be heard. More research into why complainants do not take up the option and how mediation may be better promoted would likely benefit all stakeholders and build trust. 

Assessment of suitability for family dispute resolution

This post is written by Mark Dickinson, PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania, and is based upon the paper that he presented at the ADRRN Roundtable in December 2019.

Introduction

This research project explores the assessment of suitability for Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) – a decision making process which is a primary responsibility of a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner (FDRP) (See generally Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) and Family Law (Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners) Regulations 2008 (Cth)). Before a joint FDR (mediation) session can be offered an assessment as to its suitability for the parties must first be conducted (Reg 25(1)). This discretionary assessment of suitability for FDR relies on the professional judgment of the individual FDRP. Using a mixed methods approach this research examines this assessment of suitability as undertaken by FDRPs working in a community-based, not for profit organisation in Tasmania.

Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay https://images.app.goo.gl/VghtFUuavzVBJ5418

Background

From July 2007 the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) has required separated parents and others to make a genuine effort to resolve their parenting dispute at FDR prior to filing in the family courts (s60I – note exceptions apply). FDR is a non-adversarial, alternative dispute resolution process akin to facilitative mediation. Coinciding with this mandating of FDR, 65 community-based, government funded, Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) were established around the country to provide free or nominal cost FDR services. The majority of FDR takes place in FRCs (see Moloney et al, p238).

It has been observed that clients engaging at FRCs are increasingly presenting with complex needs (see also Smyth et al, 10-11). The mandating of FDR and the establishment of FRCs has led FDRPs to be considered “gatekeepers” to the family court system. As a result, the nature and complexity of cases dealt with in an FRC can vary considerably.

The test to be applied in assessing suitability for FDR involves a consideration of the “capacity of each party to negotiation freely” having regard to a range of factors including: any history of family violence; the safety of the parties; equality of bargaining power; risk of child abuse; and the emotional, psychological and physical health of the parties (reg 25(2)). Communications made to an FDRP during FDR are generally confidential (s 10H); and subject to a specific court order, practitioners are not required to provide reasons for the determination of suitability for FDR. This research aims to shed light on this important decision of the FDRP.

Rationale

One aspect of an FDRP’s competence in practice is the ability to effectively mediate a range of parenting disputes with varying complexity. It is argued that the greater the FDRP’s ability to effectively mediate complex (as well as less complex) matters, the higher will be the percentage of their caseload that they will assess as suitable for FDR and will proceed to a joint mediation session. FRC clients that are assessed as unsuitable for FDR are provided with a “section 60I certificate” to that effect and need to consider other options to resolve their dispute. Receipt of a s 60I certificate enables a party to file a parenting application in the family courts, though the cost of engaging a private legal practitioner in such proceedings is not a viable option for manyResearch commissioned by Interrelate found that 41% of its surveyed FRC clients who received a not suitable certificate would have preferred to continue with FDR to resolve their dispute.

From a governmental perspective FDR is a cost-effective method of resolving family law disputes. An analysis by the Australian Government found that FDR conducted through FRCs and Legal Aid Commissions had a net cost per service of less than one fifth of the cost of matters finalised in the Family Court of Australia.  Recent budgetary cuts to Legal Aid Commissions and Community Legal Centres are likely to reduce the number of clients having access to free or subsidised family law legal services. The recently published Australian Law Reform Commission Inquiry into the Family Law System supports the continued use of FDR. Within this context the Australian Government has shown an ongoing interest in exploring alternative outcome measures and funding models for FRCs.

A deeper understanding of the assessment of suitability for FDR using both quantitative and qualitative methods may support the adoption of the frequency of assessments of suitability for FDR as a further metric for measuring FDRP effectiveness in practice. Further research (beyond the scope of this project) may use the findings of this research to develop models for practice aimed at increasing the frequency FDR is assessed as suitable, and therefore of clients being offered a joint FDR (mediation) service. 

Relationships Australia Tasmania

Relationships Australia Tasmania (RA Tas) operates all FRCs established in Tasmania, with centres in Hobart, Launceston and Devonport.  RA Tas has provided in principle agreement to provide data for this research project. I was formerly employed by Relationships Australia Tasmania (“RA Tas”) as an FDRP and senior practitioner in FDR.  In 2014 I conducted a pilot study at the Launceston FRC quantifying the number of section 60I certificates issued by its FDRPs. The pilot study suggested a significant variation between FDRPs of the frequency in which they assessed cases as unsuitable. 

Research Questions 

Having regard to the scope of the data sought, this research aims to answer the following research questions: 

  1. Is there a significant variation between FDRPs of the frequency in which cases are assessed as unsuitable?
  2. What do FDRPs report they consider when assessing suitability for FDR?
  3. Assuming a significant variation is found to the first question, what factors reported by FDRPs appear most relevant in explaining that variation? 

Methodology Summary

The proposed research involves at least two phases. The first phase of this research will cover a five year period and quantify: all certificate types issued by RA Tas FDRPs; the number of cases allocated to each FDRP; and the number of cases that proceeded to a joint FDR session. This data should show what variation exists between FDRPs of the frequency in which they assess cases as unsuitable (and suitable) – expressed as a percentage of total cases.

The second phase of the research will involve in depth interviews with RA Tas FDRPs, supervisors and managers to explore the decision making process of assessing suitability for FDR and endeavour to explain the anticipated variation in the frequency of cases assessed as unsuitable by those FDRPs. 

It is hypothesized that the assessment of suitability may be as much an assessment for the FDRP as it is of the clients. This assumes an FDRP conducts the assessment and that FDRP will conduct the FDR session if the case is assessed as suitable for FDR.


NMAS and the distinction between process and substance in Court-Connected Mediations

This post is by Nussen Ainsworth and Svetlana German and was workshopped at the ADRRN Roundtable at Latrobe University on 9-10 December 2019

Nussen Ainsworth and Svetlana German presenting at the ADRRN Roundtable in December 2019.

Achieving a fair agreement has been recognised as a central goal of mediation. However, there is no consensus amongst mediation scholars as to the meaning of a fair mediated agreement and how to best achieve it. Conceptually two broad categories of fairness in mediation can be proposed; procedural fairness relating to the process of mediation and substantive fairness relating to the outcome of the mediation. The National Mediator System in Australia expressly addresses fairness in Section 7 in “Procedural fairness and impartiality” stating: 

7.1 A mediator must conduct the mediation in a fair, equitable and impartial way, without favouritism or bias in act or omission. 

7.2 A mediator must identify and disclose any potential grounds of bias or conflict of interest before the mediation, or that emerge at any time during the process. 

7.3 A mediator must not mediate in cases involving a conflict of interest without the informed consent of the participants, and then only if, in the mediator’s view, the conflict would not impair his or her impartial conduct of the process. 

7.4 A mediator must support participants to reach agreements freely, voluntarily, without undue influence and on the basis of informed consent. 

7.5 A mediator must provide participants appropriate opportunities to speak to and be heard by one another in the mediation, and to articulate their respective interests, issues and underlying needs. 

7.6 A mediator must ensure, so far as practicable, that participants have had sufficient time and opportunity to access sources of advice or information necessary for their decision-making. 

7.7 A mediator must encourage and support negotiations that focus on the participants’ respective interests, issues and underlying needs and must encourage participants to assess any proposed agreements accordingly and with reference to their long-term viability. 

Whist the apparent focus is on procedural fairness, the NMAS directs mediators to encourage an assessment of the proposed agreements with reference to long-term viability. One reading of this may imply that substantive unfairness can undermine the viability of the agreement. In support of this interpretation, in NMAS 6.2 the mediator “must be alert to changing balances of power in mediation and manage the mediation accordingly”.  Internationally, some mediator standards direct that a mediator may indicate non-concurrence with a decision they find inherently unfair or may refuse to draft an agreement which “seems fundamentally unfair to one party”.  Where a mediator promotes settlement without regard to the legal rights of the parties the outcome of the mediation may be unjust.  In court connected mediation there is an additional argument that the outcomes should be measured by legal standards, as parties in court connected mediation should be entitled to expect “equivalency justice” which has both procedural and substantive components. This may be particularly difficult where parties are not represented or are uninformed about their legal rights.

A study of Court Connected Mediation Mediators demonstrates that mediators do engage with substantive law

Preliminary findings from this study provide insights into what is happening in  Court Connected Mediations including what role the mediator and law have in this process.  The data was collected by Nussen Ainsworth through interviews with 24 mediators, and the observation of 32 mediation across three CCM sites. The research focuses on the mediation process, the role of the mediator and the role of the law in CCM. A number of relevant findings included:

  1. Law was integral to the mediators. Wearing a lawyer hat is very much ingrained in their identity, it is the prism that for the majority of their professional life saw and dealt with everything. The data suggest that for these mediators it is not a simple process to simply take off their legal practitioner hat. It appears that the opposite is true; the mediator relies on and leverages off their legal background when acting in the role of mediator. 
  2. Substantive legal knowledge was the most common response mediators gave when asked what skills and knowledge they relied on in the mediation. Based on their responses, substantive legal knowledge can be from general ability to ‘understanding of what the dispute was about’  to ‘it was very important to have substantial knowledge of the VCAT advisory opinion on safety measure and I think that stood me in good stead knowing the current status of that opinion’
  3. In CCM mediators are not reluctant to engage with the legal merits of the dispute, and some even take active steps to embrace such engagement.  
  4. The CCM mediators are aware of the prevalence, and beneficial role law has in and on CCM. The vast majority of the mediators said their legal background affects how they conduct a mediation. 
  5. The majority of the mediators said that mediators could evaluate or advise of the merits of the substantive dispute of the outcome of the dispute. However many mediators were firmly of the opposite view and said this sort of activity is never appropriate.  This remains a complex issue as there was a divergence of opinions between the mediators that said it is appropriate to evaluate and give advice as to what type and how much is appropriate. 

Further clarity in the guidelines is required

Although the data focused on the CCM disputes, the evidence suggests that the NAMS Standards are applied by mediators in varied way. The issue of mediators giving advice has long been discussed in the literature and something that is not encouraged and even frowned upon. However, this study demonstrates that this was not reflected in practice.  Some mediators do in fact evaluate the dispute from a legal perspective and concern themselves with both procedural and substantive justice. Whilst this may address some of the concerns raised in the literature it should be expressly addressed in the NAMS to ensure that there is a consistency of process and ensure that the obligations are clearly set out in relation to this critical aspect of mediation practice. 

Nussen Ainsworth is a Lecturer at the College of Law and Justice, Victoria University. Accredited specialist in mediation, Law Institute of Victoria. Editor in Chief of the Australasian Dispute Resolution Research Network WordPress site from February 2020.

Svetlana German (BSC/LLB (UNSW), LLM (Columbia University) is an academic at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney and barrister and accredited mediator at 10th Floor Selborne Wentworth Chambers.  Svetlana teaches in the areas of Dispute Resolution and Property Law and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) where she holds theQuentin Bryce Law Doctoral Scholarship. Her doctoral research examines mediator perception of their obligation to remain neutral where one of the parties is unrepresented.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD ARBITRATION LAW? THE AUSTRALIAN EXPERIENCE

This post by Dr Benjamin Hayward is based upon the work in progress that he presented at the ADRRN Roundtable on 9-10 December 2019.

The ingredients for avocado toast. Photo: Nicole De Khors, Creative Commons

Arbitration is an alternative dispute resolution mechanism that can be used to resolve international and domestic commercial disputes.  It is a private process, grounded in the parties’ consent and separate to litigation, but it remains related: arbitration is a formal dispute resolution process; it is supported by national laws regulating its conduct; and those laws also set out the ways in which courts may intervene in the arbitral process for the purpose of supporting it.  In Australia, the International Arbitration Act 1974 (Cth) regulates international commercial arbitration.  Uniform State and Territory Acts, including the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic), govern arbitrations relating to domestic commercial disputes.

Many Asia-Pacific arbitral centres, including the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, have seen their caseloads increase over recent years.  Though there are no reliable local statistics, and despite a series of reforms to its international and domestic commercial arbitration laws over the past decade, Australia is still perceived as lagging behind.

Significant reforms to Australia’s international commercial arbitration laws were enacted in 2010, seeking to establish this country as a regional arbitration hub, though Australia is yet to realise this dream.  Given all of this, and empirical evidence confirming that countries’ formal legal infrastructures are the most important factor motivating parties’ choices of arbitral seat (ie. legal location of an arbitration), two important practical and policy questions arise:

1.  What ingredients make up a good arbitration law?; and

2.  How do we go about measuring the success of law reform?

Jurisdictions’ arbitration laws are traditionally critiqued on the basis of their arbitration friendliness and/or their pro-arbitration natures.  References to these concepts abound in online commentary.  Yet these concepts are sometimes misapplied, and sometimes misused.  Even aside from their nebulous natures, they may represent a binary and overly simplistic way of viewing what are actually difficult issues.  Australia’s quest to become a recognised and respected arbitral centre will be frustrated if there is no way to adequately justify (or predict) the quality of future (or proposed) law reforms.  An evaluative framework comprised of something more than just generalisations is required.

It is here that the views of Australia’s arbitration community have an important role to play.  International and domestic commercial arbitration laws exist to serve merchants.  It therefore stands to reason that the arbitration and merchant communities’ concerns should constitute the criteria against which developments in Australia’s arbitration laws are measured.

2009 conference organised by the Australian Centre for International Commercial Arbitration invited its participants to query the extent to which Australia’s international and domestic commercial arbitration laws lived up to efficiency, effectiveness, and economic viability ideals.  These ideals reflect matters of continuing concern to the arbitration profession.  Academics, practitioners, and their clients continue to critique costs and delay in arbitral proceedings.  Effectiveness – which may be defined as the degree to which arbitration secures its intended results – also encompasses ongoing concerns around the degree to which Australia’s arbitration laws are consistent with consistent with the international templates upon which they are based, and market expectations.

Applying these efficiency, effectiveness, and economic viability criteria to developments in Australia’s arbitration laws over the 2009 to 2019 period provides some interesting insights.  To take just one example, the International Arbitration Act 1974 (Cth) was amended in 2010 to include confidentiality provisions, though these applied on an opt-in (rather than a default) basis.  Parties had to affirmatively choose these provisions in order for them to apply; a position not all that different in substance to the then-existing common law rule that arbitration is private but not confidential, unless parties specifically adopt their own confidentiality clause.  Given confidentiality’s empirically-confirmed importance in international arbitration, these reforms were arguably contrary to market expectations on account of their opt-in nature: and, thus, ineffective.  Further amendments in 2015 finally gave these confidentiality rules default operation, aligning their application with market expectations (albeit after a five year delay).

The efficiency, effectiveness, and economic viability criteria provide Commonwealth, State, and Territory legislators with a recipe for future reforms to Australia’s international and domestic commercial arbitration laws.  The adoption of these criteria as policy standards (and legislative drafting tools) stands to assist Australia in developing high quality arbitration laws, and high quality law reform packages.  This, in turn, has the potential to help Australia improve its attractiveness as a place to conduct arbitrations for the resolution of both international and domestic commercial disputes.

This is not merely a matter of semantics.  Consistently applying the efficiency, effectiveness, and economic viability criteria to Australian arbitration law reform stands to generate different outcomes to those seen over the 2009 to 2019 period.  Returning once again to the confidentiality example, reconsideration of the original 2010 reforms in light of market expectations (a matter of effectiveness) would have led to the International Arbitration Act 1974 (Cth)’s confidentiality provisions having default application from the outset.Commercial parties, when negotiating dispute resolution clauses in their contracts, will ultimately vote with their feet.  If Australia’s arbitration laws don’t reach the mark, they will simply choose to arbitrate elsewhere.  This is all the more reason to take on board the arbitration and merchant communities’ concerns when seeking to improve Australia’s arbitration laws for the ultimate benefit of commercial parties.

Dr Benjamin Hayward is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Business Law and Taxation, at the Monash Business School.  His research interests span international commercial arbitration, the international sale of goods, private international law, and Australian contract, commercial, sales, and consumer law.  Dr Hayward is the author of Conflict of Laws and Arbitral Discretion – The Closest Connection Test (Oxford University Press, 2017), his publications are available on SSRN, he tweets at @LawGuyPI, and he is the co-director of his department’s International Trade and International Commercial Law research group.