Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) in the classroom – Lessons from Millennials

ODR has consistently been in the news since the early 90s. It has popped up again this week as the ICC reported that the videos of its significant ODR conference in 2017 are now available from its online library.

ODR has also been appearing consistently in undergraduate and postgraduate programs of Australian law schools.

At UNSW I have been able to take the opportunity to teach in an ‘Active Learning Space’ where students work in small groups at pods around the walls complete with individual large screens. Individual computers connect to each screen promoting group activity and enhancing my supervision opportunities. This is a great space in which to combine experiential learning with developing creative ways to teach and experiment with the new developments in the field.

As I have built my skills in using this space I have been congratulating myself on having found a way to keep students away from their mobile phones and other distracting devices and deeply engaged in transparent, collaborative, group learning.

For all my self-congratulations, in the end I have discovered it is the students who have given me the lesson. Let me explain.

For some years, part of the experiential program has included an introduction to ODR. Teaching ODR is not new and there are numerous online reports of how these curricula have developed. There are some great Australian examples to be proud of.

I embraced this field several years ago, with my undergraduate class, with a simple conflict resolution exercise. It primarily depended on email with students working from different locations. It was challenging and hard to manage.

I explored an international exercise with a former student now running a dispute resolution program in an American university. This was a disaster – whilst my students obtained marks as part of their class assessment, his students took the class as an ‘extracurricular’ exercise and, understandably, lacked commitment and persistence when international communications became challenging. I have abandoned this for the present but I know it is in the future to be revisited.

Over time, the exercise has gradually added more platforms and devices where we explored synchronous experiences such as Skype and asynchronous experiences such as email combined with Skype, private channel YouTube recordings and email. It was challenging and still required intervention offline when things went off-track.

Recently, through the generosity of Modron, I was given the opportunity to use my classroom as a Beta site for exploring Modron’s close to seamless online program for dispute resolution. Students were able to appoint a mediator, negotiate fees, execute a mediation agreement, conduct a full mediation session complete with confidential caucuses, execute a settlement agreement and pay the mediator using a single piece of software.

It wasn’t perfect but it was a considerable enhancement from what had been serving as an ODR experience previously. Students did get bumped off the system from time to time through technical teething difficulties but we were well aware we were engaged in a beta test and recognised that what we were doing was helping to iron out some of the software issues.

The exercise took several hours over the elapsed time of a day and I saw it as a useful experience which gave students a glimpse into the future world which would be of their making. I thought the students would have endorsed it wholeheartedly.

But there was a significant lesson waiting for me as I debriefed the exercise.

ODR debrief

This photo shows the early comments from the 6 mediation groups as they began to record their comments for our debrief session. By the time the debrief was completed we had filled 3 whiteboards!

Students characterised ODR as something that had a value in particular circumstances.

However, as the debrief continued, they shared much more significant insights namely:

  • ODR and technology have a place in the greater field of ADR as one tool and NOT as a complete replacement for other modes of resolution. ADR is an ‘and, and, and environment – not ‘either or’
  • ADR offers an important opportunity for meaningful in-person encounters that facilitate exploring and rebuilding a shared narrative. Some things can’t be achieved effectively online and it would ‘destroy the innate value of mediation if important in-person experiences were replaced by the drive for increased efficiency.’ Sometimes it is more important to be effective rather than efficient.
  • Except for unusual circumstances where parties require to be separated, in-person processes, with clients present, are ALWAYS preferable.

I owe the millennials an apology for my assumption they prefer life on devices, disconnected from human exchanges.

What a great lesson. The future is in good hands!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Are we nearly there yet? Reflections on the HDR journey

As we move towards the middle of this my fourth year of PhD candidature, my thesis submission date is drawing rapidly nigh and the anxiety level is elevated a notch,  I thought it might be useful to reflect on the journey thus far and to share with you some of the highlights and low points of the journey although, thankfully, of the latter there is little to report.

child drawing

Image: ‘Child Drawing’ by The Naked Ape, Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I think it is fair to say that the journey may never have commenced at all, had it not been for the blindingly obvious conclusion after thirty years of legal practice as a commercial litigator, that the solutions being offered to litigants by the traditional justice system were somewhat less than ideal.  Clients were complaining that the court could not offer the relief they were seeking, the costs of “winning” were prohibitively high and most of the cases in which I was instructed were resolved on some basis well before they reached a hearing.  Try as I might, I could never quite be convinced of the claim that the public interest in having the courts “…explicate and give force to the values embodied in authoritative texts…” (1) or otherwise declare the law for the benefit of the public good, had any real relevance to some of the mundane and routine cases in which I was involved.  In fact, of all of the hundreds of cases in which I acted throughout my career as a lawyer, only two found their way into the law reports.

And so it was that, armed with the vision of a broader view of justice and a transcript of my Masters in Dispute Resolution, I arrived at the academy with a request to be admitted to the RHD program.  It is worth noting at this juncture that the welcoming and supportive culture of the academic community generally and my academic supervisors especially, has been nothing short of outstanding and I believe it is a tribute to their encouragement and support that I have persevered this far.

I am happy to say that my first year of candidature was both vigorous and productive.  Together with my colleague Armin Alimardani I represented the Faculty of Law at UNSW in the Three Minute Thesis competition where we both performed without distinction but were grateful for the experience.  The formulation of an appropriate research question, the preparation of a proposal and writing of a literature review  occupied most of the year and did much to clear my thoughts about the path that lay ahead.  I was delighted to discover that others had trodden the path I sought to travel and there was a rich and abundant supply of research evidence in the general dispute resolution field.  The filtering of this material was as fascinating as it was challenging and the effort was well rewarded because it placed me in an excellent position to approach the confirmation examination with confidence and to receive and consider the reviewers’ comments constructively.  Other features of the year included attendance at a compulsory course on research methodology and the acceptance for publication of the first of three articles which have appeared in the Australasian Alternative Dispute Resolution Journal.

The clear highlight of 2015 was the opportunity of presenting a paper at the 4th ADRN Roundtable at UNSW in September, an event which I shall long remember because it was there that I was introduced to the members of this research network, a group of like-minded thinkers, researchers and teachers who share my passion for a broader framework of justice.  I have attended each of our roundtables since and hope to do so again this year. It is, I think, an important and integral part of the aspiring academic’s learning experience to have the opportunity to present his or her research at as many roundtables and conferences as possible.  It provides an opportunity for practice at presenting, an opportunity to review the work of others and to receive comments and review of one’s own work in a supportive and non-threatening environment.    It also encourages collaboration and the formulation of collaborative networks such as the ADRRN.  For the RHD candidate, it also provides a much needed point of human contact with other researchers.  The road to a PhD can be a lonely journey at times and it is a good thing to meet with others professionally and socially to exchange thoughts and ideas about what is happening in the research discipline.  For me, the ADRRN roundtable is an end-of-year reward for diligence throughout the past year.

The research question with which I am concerned is how lawyers are engaging with court-connected mediation.  In her optimistically titled work, The New Lawyer: How settlement is transforming the practice of law (2) Julie Macfarlane explores the reasons why lawyers have traditionally acted in an adversarial manner in response to conflict and dispute.  She says that it is a cultural issue and that we (lawyers) behave as we do because of our “legal professional culture.”  She posits the existence of three core elements of legal professional culture which guide our thinking and steer us towards adversarial competition whenever a dispute arises.  Those elements are, firstly, the default to a rights based system of justice, secondly a belief in justice as process and thirdly a belief in the superiority of the lawyer as expert.  Using a data collection instrument designed to capture the presence of those elements in research respondents and with ethics approval sought and obtained, I set off in the Spring of 2016 to drive to various country centres throughout New South Wales to speak to lawyers about their views on court-connected mediation.  I spoke with each respondent for an hour, recorded the interviews with their permission on my smartphone and transcribed the interviews later.  (For anyone who may be contemplating this as a strategy for the future, be warned: the transcription time to interview time is 6:1 so for every hour of interview you can expect to spend six hours transcribing).

The verdict is in.  The qualitative data has been analysed and the interviews studied.  In many respects the results are not surprising.   They align with other research done in other places and at other times.  The good news is that, even over the past five years or so, we lawyers have made some progress in embracing court-connected mediation although at times with a begrudging acceptance and a resignation that it is here to stay and we may as well get used to it.  Particular themes emerged and are dealt with in my thesis.  They include, notably, the much vexed issue of disputant participation and the issue of confidentiality.  Understanding of how lawyers grapple with these issues is of particular interest to me because they go a long way to explaining what Olivia Rundle calls “the dilemma of court-connected mediation.”  Other themes which emerged from the data were the inclusion in mediation narrative of non-legal material and the question of whether, in court-connected mediation, mediators should be facilitative or directive.  A better understanding of these issues will give lawyers and their clients a better understanding of mediation and a more satisfying mediation experience.

So, as I turn into the straight for the final run home to what I hope will be a successful conclusion, I am sometimes reminded of family holidays and long car journeys and colouring books when my children would ask: “Are we nearly there yet?” and their mother would patiently reply: “Nearly there.  Just a little while to go. Just keep drawing in your book.  I’m sure you can make it a little better.” 


(1) O. Fiss Against Settlement 93 Yale LJ 1073 1983-1984 at p 1085

(2) J. Macfarlane The New Lawyer: How settlement is transforming the practice of law (Vancouver UBC Press 2008)

 

 

Mediation in NSW schools

by Frances Richards.

Frances is a volunteer adjudicator for the Law Society of New South Wales mock mediation competition. Frances is an accredited mediator and an Adjunct Lecturer at the School of Law, Sydney, The University of Notre Dame Australia.

Mock mediation grandfinal

2017 Mock mediation Grand Final – this was the winning team Trinity Catholic College Lismore, with presiding adjudicators on either end of the team in the black jacket (Lara Bishkov), white jacket (Monika Lama) and pink jacket (Helen Miedzinski). Photo courtesy Frances Richards

This article is about initiatives to introduce mediation to students in NSW schools.

The NSW Department of Education offers peer mediation programs for primary and secondary public schools in NSW. These programs are one of the conflict resolution strategies available for schools to adopt. The Department provides resources for schools to use and intends to update these resources. The resources can be found at: Peer Mediation.

The Law Society of NSW organizes an annual mock mediation competition for secondary public and private school students. The competition provides an opportunity for students to develop, refine and practice cooperative problem solving and conflict resolution skills.

What are the objectives of these initiatives to introduce mediation in NSW schools?

According to the Department’s resources, the peer mediation programs are intended to ‘empower, prepare and support students and staff to deal successfully with conflict situations at school, at home and in later life.’

According to the Mock Mediation Manual 2018, the competition aims to:

“ Recognise the opportunities for change and progress that can result from conflict and improve the ability of students to manage conflict in a way that leads to a positive outcome

Acknowledge the increasing use of mediation by courts and the community, and equip students with the skills necessary to participate in a mediation process.

Educate students about the importance of the process in tandem with constructive dialogue.”

How does mediation in schools work?

The peer mediation program involves one or two trained student mediators assisting two disputants through a structured process to reach resolution of a dispute. Peer mediation programs are coordinated by staff trained in mediation, who provide ongoing supervision and support to student mediators. Peer mediation programs are intended for minor disputes such as gossip and rumour spreading, name calling, friendship problems, teasing, loss of property and exclusion.

The mock mediation competition is open to students in years 9 and 10. Each school participating in the competition has 1 team with a maximum of 9 students.  Each team participates in 3 rounds. All teams in the competition receive a certificate of participation. The two teams who reach the grand final receive a certificate and a medal. The winning team receives a trophy.  The competition requires involvement and support from teachers as coaches and mediators as adjudicators.

To receive points for the competition, the students must demonstrate skills including:

Listening, Brainstorming, Empathy, Judgment, Questioning, Decision making, Communication, Teamwork, Problem solving, Leadership, Negotiation, Time management, Assertiveness and Reflecting.

What are the benefits for students?

Both the peer mediation program and the mock mediation competition are intended to benefit the students, staff, schools and community.

The intended benefits for students are:

  • Skill development including communication, listening and problem-solving skills
  • Assuming greater responsibility for solving their own problems
  • Creating an awareness of their responsibilities when dealing with others
  • Furthering personal development and self-improvement
  • Increasing self-esteem
  • Learning to manage conflict in a productive way

In addition to the mediation competition context, acquiring these skills may be of importance for the future employability of the students. A recent study of the Canadian workforce by the Royal Bank of Canada shows that these are the types of skills students will require to negotiate the future. The study found that “An assessment of 20,000 skills rankings across 300 occupations and 2.4 million expected job openings shows an increasing demand for foundational skills such as critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving.”

The study also found that “Virtually all job openings will place significant importance on judgement and decision making and more than two thirds will value an ability to manage people and resources.”

The findings of the study are contained in the report “Humans Wanted How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption” published on 26 March 2018.

What are the other benefits?

The intended benefits for schools and the wider community include:

  • reduced conflict in the school environment
  • reduced bullying and aggressive behaviour
  • reduced tension in the classroom environment
  • reduced time spent by staff on minor disputes
  • safer and more harmonious school environment
  • maximising the opportunity for learning for all students
  • promoting open communication to resolve contentious issues
  • maximising the benefits of cooperative problem-solving
  • encouraging mediation and negotiation as an alternative to litigation

What does the research show?

An exploratory study into a peer mediation program in a primary school context in NSW collected data that demonstrated therapeutic benefits for the school community, that students reported that participation in the peer mediation program had benefited them in their lives after school and that the training and knowledge obtained from the program can be applied in different situations (McWilliam, N., A school peer mediation program as a context for exploring therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ): Can a peer mediation program inform the law?, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (2010), doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2010.09.002.)

Research has also been conducted into the use of mediation as an educational strategy in schools in other countries. One recent study of mediation in Spanish schools found evidence that the programs did teach students skills that they do not have the opportunity to learn in other subjects and to manage their own conflicts (Raga, L. G., Sanchis, I. C., Mora, A. M., & Santana, G. R., (2016). Strengths and weaknesses of the school mediation from the perspective of students in secondary education. Pedagogía Social: Revista Interuniversitaria, (28), 203-215. 10.7179/PSRI_2016.28.15.)

Conclusion

As an adjudicator for the mock mediation competition I have observed the students participating enthusiastically and reflecting on their experience of how hard it is to actively listen, what it feels like not to be heard and how hard it is to find strategies to unlock deadlock.

The potential of the peer mediation program and the mock mediation competition to deliver their intended benefits is limited by the time, resources and commitment of staff and volunteers.

Research is needed to provide evidence of the benefits of students participating in peer mediation programs and mock mediation competitions. Such evidence would assist schools in deciding to allocate time and resources to expanding the use of mediation initiatives. Submissions to conduct research in NSW public schools can be directed to: <http://www.serap.det.nsw.edu.au/>. Information about participating in the mock mediation competition in 2019 can be found at: Law Society Mock Mediation

Restorative Justice in Mediation: A study of Police Complaint Systems: by Mary Riley PhD Candidate USC

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is the way of the future given the cost, delays and personal toll that litigation through the courts can take on individuals. Civil law disputants have and continue to benefit from ADR by resolving their conflict via facilitated dialogue. Conversely, when disputants take the litigation road their often subjective issues are objectively dealt with and the outcome does little to repair or enhance the parties’ relationship. Why is this important? Well, humans are social creatures. We survive and thrive because of our relationships with others. If a civil dispute involves individuals who know each other, either personally or through business dealings, then establishing understanding and peacemaking is vital to their future interactions. So, the question is: can ADR take the resolution of disputes a step further – to heal the parties involved? Restorative justice (RJ) offers a way to do that.

The RJ principles of encounter, respect, open dialogue and agreement, through independent facilitation, have been applied in criminal justice mediation and conferencing for some time. RJ addresses the needs of those involved, in a way that is meaningful to them. It gives individuals a ‘voice’, so the harms caused by wrongdoing, which can be debilitating and life altering, can be expressed. The transformation that can occur in RJ mediation often results in changed attitudes and material and symbolic reparation.

I am about to embark on a study of the mechanisms for dealing with civilian complaints against police in Australia and elsewhere. I want to find out whether there is a place for RJ in the resolution of this type of conflict which is civil in nature but sits in a criminal justice context. Given that the police interact with the community in the course of their law enforcement duties it is not surprising that disputes occur and that these can result in large numbers of complaints. But the way these complaints are handled (i.e. against police but managed by police) may not lead to the restoration of what is a very important relationship – the police and in the community. An initial scoping exercise has revealed that in most parts of the world, complaints against police are dealt with via an internal process. However, there are a growing number of international examples of RJ mediation being used to resolve these disputes. The expected outcome of my research is a best practice model for the resolution of civilian complaints against the police, which could be implemented in Australia and elsewhere, including guidelines for successful implementation.

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From theory to collaborative practice

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I was a legal academic for twenty years: teaching, researching and writing about family law and family mediation.  I have always sought to integrate theory with practice, and to inform my teaching and research with professional experience and current innovation. So, in addition to being a lawyer, I have trained and practised as a mediator, a family dispute resolution practitioner, a conflict coach and an interdisciplinary collaborative practice coach.

Interdisciplinary collaborative practice training

I thought I understood the collaborative framework and philosophy, but interdisciplinary collaborative practice training helped me better appreciate the rationale, the nuances of the process, the significance of teamwork and presence, and the value-add and roles of legal and non-legal professionals in this approach to dispute resolution. It sparked a strong interest to enrich my professional practice to include this burgeoning and important speciality.  It made me keen to develop the artistry required of an effective collaborative practitioner.

At the core of collaborative practice is commitment to enhance party self-determination through structured and staged multi-professional support and advice.  To this foundational mediation premise, collaborative practice applies current brain science to understand how separation and divorce are experienced as trauma.  This science affirms that in empathising with people who are in acute stress response, professionals walk alongside them, reduce the energy taken up by their limbic system, support them to mirror empathic behaviour and create space for the neocortex to work more effectively.

This is critical because it assists people to manage their anxiety, creates calm, enhances self-awareness and promotes the capacity for active listening. It ultimately supports considered reflection and greater capacity for understanding themself, hearing their ex partner and making informed choices.

Coaching in the five way process

One of the more recent collaborative developments is the five-way collaborative process in which in a coach is an independent and impartial facilitator and steward of the collaborative process. A coach may assess the dispute and parties for suitability, and helps the lawyers and parties to make efficient use of the process.

Coaches often manage the overall process, frame the agenda and minute meetings, as well as assist parties to prepare for the meetings and to communicate effectively. They may meet jointly or separately with each party between five-way meetings to clarify party goals, assist parties to develop strategies to regulate their emotional state, facilitate feedback from child consultants, foster parental alliance, and help the family to transition constructively through the separation.

Coaches may be mental health professionals, but in Australia they are also frequently accredited Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners, bringing mediation expertise and authority to issue family court certificates should agreement not be reached.  If appropriately trained, coaches may also bring the power of empathy to assist parties to self-regulate and to suport their capacity for empathic listening.

Coaches don’t need to be mental health professionals to do this, but do need to be aware of their professional boundaries, and to refer parties to seek psychological support or counselling if needed. The value of coaches in collaborative practice is their impartiality and their capacity to support interest-based negotiation, creatively problem solve, manage the meeting and between-meeting processes and keep the collaborative process on track.

Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is one of the key features and advantages of contemporary collaborative practice. The support provided to parties by a multi-professional team can be invaluable and ensure informed decisions are made which have a whole-of-life and whole-of-family perspective.

A collaboratively trained financial neutral or forensic accountant can not only provide advice and options to distribute assets to meet immediate needs and just outcomes, but can do this within a longer-term perspective to address complex structuring issues, save tax and super and optimise parties’ future financial viability. Children’s specialists can also assist parents to hear their child’s experience of the separation and clarify what is in the child’s best interests.

Opportunities for lawyers

This interdisciplinarity, and especially the coach role, has the potential to decentre lawyers. But I think it actually frees lawyers to employ their expertise and advocacy to help parties achieve holistic outcomes. Whilst collaborative practice is likely to be attractive to lawyers already committed to non-adversarial and client-centred lawyering, it requires that lawyers are collaboratively trained so that they fully appreciate what teamwork requires, and what commitment to empower people to resolve their disputes jointly and collaboratively means in practice.

Because of its flexibility, collaborative practice also provides lawyers with further opportunities to reframe the process in ways consistent with protecting their client’s legal rights as well as problem solving about their needs and interests. Thus collaborative law has the potential for lawyers to contribute to reshaping the paradigms of legal practice and appropriate dispute resolution.

For many  family lawyers this is their preferred form of practice. Family law clients report the benefits of collaborative practice in easing the separation transition and supporting post separation family life.  One commented ‘my children are happy that their parents went through a non-adversarial process and they had a chance to voice their opinions to the Child Consultant and Coach’. Another reported ‘my husband and I decided we would try the process to see if we could get through our divorce amicably.  Overall this was extremely successful and I would definitely suggest that anyone going through a divorce consider the collaborative route – it is quicker, it is cheaper and it encourages the couple to remain civil despite the tense emotions that inevitably come into play during a divorce.’

Collaborative practice has enormous potential to provide multi-professional support to transition people through separation and help them make informed, child-centred and life affirming choices. Further information is available through state-wide collaborative professional networks and collaborative practice training organisations.

Also published in Collaborative Professionals (NSW) Inc Newsletter, 20 April 2018 and on Armstrongmediation.com.au blog on 11 May 2018.

 

An ADR Research​ Network Roundtable Success Story

An invitation to submit a paper for the 7th ADRRN Roundtable on the Sunshine Coast in December this year was posted on our blog in April.  The function and aims of Roundtable are described in the invitation as:

The Australasian Dispute Resolution Research Network brings together leading dispute resolution scholars and provides a collaborative environment to foster, nurture and enrich high quality research and scholarship. The Network is inclusive and forward-looking and seeks to bring together emerging, mid-career and established scholars to build excellence in the field and provide peer support. Network activities are expressly designed to provide a supportive and collegial presentation environment in which meaningful discussion and constructive feedback are provided to the presenter.

I have been fortunate to attend 5 of the 6 Roundtables to date. There are many positive outcomes of the Roundtables, not least of which is the opportunity to meet and engage with people of like interest who are dedicated to the principles and objectives of ADR. The atmosphere is informal and decidedly collegial. Of critical importance is the opportunity to present a paper for supportive and constructive feedback. Papers are expected to be works in progress and not finished products already accepted for publication. In this respect, the Roundtable presents a golden opportunity to gain input from other scholars in a non-competitive and pointedly helpful environment. Those who give feedback are expected to do so respectfully and constructively. It is a particularly helpful opportunity and environment for HDR students, many of whom have attended Roundtables to date.

I can give you an example. I had put together a paper about the meaning of impartiality in mediation based upon interviews with mediators. I thought it was interesting and useful but it was rejected when submitted to a peer reviewed journal. I thought “don’t they get it?” and then “what do I need to do to improve it?” Apart from rethinking the choice of journal, I became aware that the paper lacked an explicit theoretical framework. I presented the paper at the Roundtable. I was able to ask questions about how it could be improved and in particular what theoretical framework I could use to ground the data I had collected. I was given excellent feedback. A reviewer suggested that to them the central issue and possible framework was justice in mediation – how obvious! Yet I had been too close to the material to see this perspective. In addition, I was able to hear and gather ideas from wider discussions which helped me place my work within other current themes considered by researchers. I reviewed and rewrote my paper. I then presented it at the Non-Adversarial Justice Conference in 2017 and became eligible to submit it to the Journal of Judicial Administration. It was accepted:

Susan Douglas, ‘Constructions of Impartiality in Mediation’ (2017) 26 Journal of Judicial Administration 232.

A researcher’s work life can mean long hours of inward focus – reading, thinking, reading, thinking, talking to one’s self. A HDR student’s lot can feel isolating and daunting.  I have always come away from the Roundtables feeling invigorated by the discussions and nurtured by the collegial atmosphere. I encourage you to send in a proposal for a paper. See details below and …. flowers from Dunedin where the 2017 Rountable was hosted by Otago University.

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Deadline for paper proposals: 13 July 2018

(300 word maximum plus short bio, to adrresearchnetwork@gmail.com)

Date for notification of acceptance: 31 July 2018

Draft (full) papers + blog post due: 30 October 2018 (to send to participants early Nov.)

For further information, please contact:

Conference Convenors and 2018 Network Presidents:

Sue Douglas and Lola Akin Ojelabi via adrresearchnetwork@gmail.com(monitored twice weekly)

Forty years of anti-discrimination law — how far have we come?

This article was originally published in Impact on 24 April 2018

woman pain

Photo credit: x1klima, Woman and Grief

Anti-discrimination law was introduced in Victoria in 1978. But after 40 years we don’t seem to be any closer to equality for all. Could establishing a corporate watchdog be the answer?

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Photo credit: Classic Film, Creative Commons

Wanted: Female, 22-25, for a secretarial role. Prefer single.

Imagine running a job ad like this today. Yet, before the advent of anti-discrimination laws, employers were able to limit applicants to very specific age groups, sex and marital status.

The introduction of Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act in 1977 put a line in the sand for sexual discrimination in the workplace. While race discrimination laws already existed at a federal level, the various state governments brought in their own legislation to cover issues such as sex, age and disability discrimination.

In 1979 flight instructor and qualified pilot Deborah Wardley took Ansett Airlines to task under the new legislation after she was prohibited from being employed by them as a pilot due to her childbearing potential.

Writing to the Women’s Electoral Lobby, General Manager, Reg Ansett said: “we have a good record of employing females in a wide range of positions within our organisation but we have adopted a policy of only employing men as pilots. This does not mean that women cannot be good pilots, but we are concerned with the provision of the safest and most efficient air service possible [and so] we feel that an all-male pilot crew is safer than one in which the sexes are mixed.”

Subsequently, the case came before the High Court of Australia and much to the chagrin of Reg Ansett, Wardley won and went on to a successful career as a pilot.

Not far in 40 years

Fast-forward 40 years and have we really made that much progress?

Monash Business School’s Dr Dominique Allen doesn’t think so. And the move to private mediation is the main reason.

Dr Allen explains that in the early days of the legislation a number of prominent cases helped weed out the most blatant forms of discrimination and served to educate the public.

“When Deborah Wardley won the case, it was a significant victory for women fighting discrimination in the workplace,” Dr Allen says.

“But our legislation has really stagnated since then.”

Since the courts moved towards mediation and conciliation, most anti-discrimination cases are settled privately.

“The public thinks that discrimination was addressed in the 1980s and that it doesn’t happen anymore,” Dr Allen says.

And there are many reasons why people settle: the exorbitant costs involved, the risk of more costs if you lose, damage to their reputation and importantly the psychological pressures of being involved in litigation.

Most people don’t want to spend years pursuing a claim, and others who have lost their job simply move on and find another one, rather than front up to court.

While this makes perfect sense, it means that the whole system has become privatised — taking place behind closed doors so people aren’t aware that discrimination still happens and how it is resolved.

What does compliance look like?

While settling cases may seem sensible, from a business or employer perspective, they don’t know what compliance looks like.

There is no deterrent aspect – they can’t see that someone else has made a claim against a certain issue or behaviour and make moves to prevent it from happening in their own organisation.

“There are problems with the system which focuses on the individual rather than the broader society,” Dr Allen says “We cannot rely on an individual to address the discrimination to “name, blame and claim” it as discrimination.”

She advocates a watchdog similar to corporate regulators to shift the focus to the employers and to business because they are best placed to foresee the impact of their actions on equality.

She proposes that such an enforcement body could make claims on behalf of people or represent them, in the way the Fair Work Ombudsman can in the industrial relations sphere; currently, there is not an equivalent body for equal opportunity.

“There’s nobody like the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)  that can step in and enforce the law or pursue a case – it relies on an individual who is often a vulnerable person,” she says.

Other options to improve the current system include putting requirements on employers and business to act first, rather than waiting until discrimination occurs. Dr Allen says the UK does something similar; public authorities need to have “due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity” in their undertakings.

Tickets please

Another early case involved Victorian trams issuing scratch tickets that were difficult for visually impaired people to use, while removing conductors who had traditionally assisted people with different disabilities to use public transport. Nine people with various physical disabilities took the Public Transport Corporation to court on the basis that these actions were a form of indirect discrimination. The judges of the High Court agreed.

Dr Allen says that it was one of the unusual instances where the court ruled that it was not just going to compensate people, it ordered the government to review the ticketing system on trams.

It would be unusual today to see a wide order like this. Now, court-awarded damages are fairly insignificant amounts.  Yet Dr Allen says it is one of the things that is needed to tackle discrimination effectively.

She says that while having the conciliation system is good – in that it saves costs and the deal remains confidential – from a societal perspective it doesn’t address broader issues.

Bring in the stick

From a business perspective, low amounts ordered by courts are not a deterrent and don’t encourage compliance with the law. Dr Allen says: “there is no big stick to wave if people are not doing the right thing.  There is no fear, as would be the case if the ACCC was pursuing them, that a hefty penalty may be imposed if they’re found to have acted unlawfully.”

So in 40 years have we addressed the discrimination in this state?

“I think we have come a long way. There are barriers that have been broken down and blatant forms of discrimination don’t happen anymore but there’s still much more than the law could do to address those hidden systemic forms of discrimination,” Dr Allen says.

Victoria’s legislation was modernised in 2010 and Dr Allen is currently working on research to see how effective these changes have been which is due later in the year.

This article was first published on Impact. Read the original article