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)

 

 

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Don’t fear robo-justice. Algorithms could help more people access legal advice

John ZeleznikowVictoria University

This post by ADR Research Network member and Professor John Zeleznikow appeared in academic commentary site The Conversation on 23 October 2017.

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Should we be afraid of robo-justice?
Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock

You may have heard that algorithms will take over the world. But how are they operating right now? We take a look in our series on Algorithms at Work.


Algorithms have a role to play in supporting but not replacing the role of lawyers.

Around 15 years ago, my team and I created an automated tool that helped determine eligibility for legal aid. Known as GetAid, we built it for Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), which helps people with legal problems to find representation. At that time, the task of determining who could access its services chewed up a significant amount of VLA’s operating budget.

After passing a financial test, applicants also needed to pass a merit test: would their case have a reasonable chance of being accepted by a court? GetAid provided advice about both stages using decision trees and machine learning.

It never came online for applicants. But all these years later, the idea of using tools such as GetAid in the legal system is being taken seriously. Humans now feel far more comfortable using software to assist with, and even make, decisions. There are two major reasons for this change:

  • Efficiency: the legal community has moved away from charging clients in six-minute blocks and instead has become concerned with providing economical advice.
  • Acceptance of the internet: legal professionals finally acknowledge that the internet can be a safe way of conducting transactions and can be used to provide important advice and to collect data.

This is a good development. Intelligent decision support systems can help streamline the legal system and provide useful advice to those who cannot afford professional assistance.

Intelligent legal decision support systems

While robots are unlikely to replace judges, automated tools are being developed to support legal decision making. In fact, they could help support access to justice in areas such as divorce, owners corporation disputes and small value contracts.

In cases where litigants cannot afford the assistance of lawyers or choose to appear in court unrepresented, systems have been developed that can advise about the potential outcome of their dispute. This helps them have reasonable expectations and make acceptable arguments.

Our Split-Up software, for example, helps users understand how Australian Family Court judges distribute marital property after a divorce.

The innovative part of the process is not the computer algorithm, but dividing the process into 94 arguments, including issues such as the contributions of the wife relative to the husband; the future needs of the wife relative to the husband; and the marriage’s level of wealth.

Using a form of statistical machine learning known as a neural network, it examines the strength of the weighting factors – contributions, needs and level of wealth – to determine an answer about the possible percentage split.

Other platforms follow a similar model. Developed by the Dutch Legal Aid Board, the Rechtwijzer dispute resolution platform allows people who are separating to answer questions that ultimately guide them to information relevant to their family situation.

Another major use of intelligent online dispute resolution is the British Columbia Civil Resolution System. It helps people affordably resolve small claims disputes of C$5,000 and under, as well as strata property conflicts.

Its initiators say that one of the common misconceptions about the system is that it offers a form of “robojustice” – a future where “disputes are decided by algorithm”.

Instead, they argue the Civil Resolution Tribunal is human-driven:

From the experts who share their knowledge through the Solution Explorer, to the dispute resolution professionals serving as facilitators and adjudicators, the CRT rests on human knowledge, skills and judgement.

Concerns about the use of robo-justice

Twenty years after we first began constructing intelligent legal decision support systems, the underlying algorithms are not much smarter, but developments in computer hardware mean machines can now search larger databases far quicker.

Critics are concerned that the use of machine learning in the legal system will worsen biases against minorities, or deepen the divide between those who can afford quality legal assistance and those who cannot.

There is no doubt that algorithms will continue to perform existing biases against vulnerable groups, but this is because the algorithms are largely copying and amplifying the decision-making trends embedded in the legal system.

In reality, there is already a class divide in legal access – those who can afford high quality legal professionals will always have an advantage. The development of intelligent support systems can partially redress this power imbalance by providing users with important legal advice that was previously unavailable to them.

There will always be a need for judges with advanced legal expertise to deal with situations that fall outside the norm. Artificial intelligence relies upon learning from prior experience and outcomes, and should not be used to make decisions about the facts of a case.

The ConversationUltimately, to pursue “real justice”, we need to change the law. In the meantime, robots can help with the smaller stuff.

John Zeleznikow, Professor of Information Systems; Research Associate, Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Honesty and Candour in Mediation: Are They in Short Supply?

Mediation, like negotiation, is at its most basic a process of communication between parties in dispute. The aim in mediation is to find a mutually agreeable solution. The success of mediation might well depend on the ‘honesty’ and ‘candour’ of the parties and their representatives. The parties must be honest and open enough to find a zone of agreement.

The terms honesty and candour need to be defined. Elsewhere I have defined ‘honesty’ as a concept which concerns the accuracy of information conveyed, while ‘candour’ is a concept which goes to the heart of whether or not information is conveyed at all.

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Honesty the flower: credit Creative Commons  see below

https://www.flickr.com/photos/11758041@N08/13891817217/”>Dave_A_2007</a&gt;

While it makes sense for the parties to be honest and open enough to find a mutually acceptable solution, only a fool would rush into a mediation and reveal, at the outset, their BATNAs, WATNAs, and bottom lines.

As for mediators, they are constantly handling information gleaned from the parties in dispute. Often they have to run ‘messages’ back and forth from separate sessions with the parties.

This short discussion looks at the obligations, if any, which fall upon the mediation participants and mediators to be honest and candid.

Parties and their representatives – duties owed to mediators and to each other

Agreements/Legislation

Standard form agreements to mediate and relevant legislation do not usually impose an obligation to be honest and/or candid, although they often require parties to ‘cooperate’ with each other and with the mediator to carry out tasks such as isolation of issues in dispute, exploration of options and so on. Many legislative schemes require the parties to participate in good faith. The terms ‘cooperation’ and ‘good faith’ (and ‘genuine effort’) are rarely defined in agreements to mediate or by relevant legislation but the courts have discerned some common elements (eg attendance at the mediation by someone with authority to settle). Some guidance on behaviour which is not inconsistent with good faith in mediation is also available from cases and commentaries. Good faith does not require a party to act against self-interest and it does not require a party to take ‘any step to advance the interests of the other party’.[1] Good faith does not require the parties to engage in total disclosure. There is no requirement to reveal all of one’s negotiation goals and bottom lines.

Lawyers, as agents for their clients, are also bound by the obligation to act in good faith. A lawyer cannot mislead the mediator or his or her opponent about a material fact for it is recognised that such action (or inaction, where a false statement needs to be corrected) constitutes bad faith.

Negotiation Convention

It is sometimes assumed that interest-based negotiation, which underlies the facilitative model of mediation, requires honesty and candour. Negotiators adhering to an interest-based approach might explain their positions and interests (and refrain from misleading on these matters) with the idea of finding a solution that meets each parties’ interests, but the prescription to be honest and forthcoming with information stops at positions and interests. There is no requirement under this model of negotiation to disclose one’s BATNA or bottom lines.

Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers

If the parties are legally represented, the level of regulation intensifies. Legal representatives are subject to the ‘law of lawyering’ including the rules of conduct of the legal profession. These rules set out obligations owed by lawyers to courts and tribunals, clients, opponents and other parties.

Lawyers cannot mislead or deceive the court on any matter. They must advise the court of any adverse legal authorities and legislation. They must be honest and courteous to clients. They must not mislead or deceive their opponents. They must treat everyone with whom they interact, with honesty and courtesy.

Aside from the requirement to advise the court about adverse legal authorities and legislation, the rules do not impose a positive obligation to reveal information unless it is necessary to correct a half-truth or to correct a prior statement which has since become false.

The rules in relation to clients, opponents and others are easily transferable to mediation. The rules in relation to courts are an awkward fit in mediation. It seems that practitioners must treat mediators as courts (see the definition of ‘court’ in the professional conduct rules). If this is the case, practitioners must never mislead or deceive a mediator and they must reveal adverse legal authorities and legislation. I say that this is an awkward fit because mediators do not make substantive decisions and, unless he or she is an evaluative mediator, a mediator seems to have no need for information on adverse authorities and legislation. What is clear is that practitioners do not have to reveal other information either to the mediator or to an opponent save if it is necessary to correct a half truth or correct a statement which has become false (and of course, the practitioner must not reveal information without the consent of the client).

Mediators – duties owed to participants

The NMAS Standards

Assuming that a mediator is accredited under the NMAS and ‘bound’ by the scheme’s Practice Standards (PS), the mediator owes a duty of honesty in regard to matters of advertising and promotion of mediation. But that may be the extent of the mediator’s obligation for honesty under the PS. The mediator might owe an obligation to act with ‘integrity’ but the meaning of that term is not clear.

Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers

If the mediator is a lawyer, he or she is still subject to the law of lawyering.

Lawyer mediators owe obligations to the court (not to mislead or deceive). A lawyer mediator is still a lawyer and could not, for example, be a party to a fraud committed during mediation.

The rules governing the relationship of lawyers and opponents seems to have no application to mediators. Mediation participants are not the mediator’s opponents.

Mediation participants are not clients in the traditional sense.

It may be that participants are best considered to be ‘others’ (they are certainly not courts). If this assumption is correct, mediators are obliged to treat mediation participants with honesty and courtesy but there is, at least under the legal profession’s rules, no requirement for candour.

What is the safest course?

The best advice for parties (and their legal representatives) is to reveal information slowly and cautiously. If information is conveyed, care must be taken to ensure that it is accurate. Lawyer mediators must also take care to ensure that any information they convey is accurate. Since there is no general duty of candour, all those who participate in mediation – including mediators – must think before they talk. At times, they may want to take refuge in a silent ‘safe harbour’.

 

[1] United Group Rail Services Limited v Rail Corporation New South Wales [2009] NSWCA 177 (3 July 2009) [76] (Allsop P).

Collaborative Practice – unique skillset or traditional lawyering?

 

Student Guest Post by Ben Zocco

 

This post is the first in a series of posts on this blog written by students studying Non-Adversarial Justice at the Faculty of Law at Monash University. Students were invited to write blog posts explaining various complex areas of law relating to dispute resolution to ordinary readers. The very best posts are published here.

 

 

The advent of collaborative practice as a means of resolving family law disputes has provided couples with a means of completing a divorce or separation in a conciliatory and cost effective manner. With more than 200 practitioners currently registered with the Law Institute of Victoria’s Collaborative Law Section, a significant number of lawyers have undergone training that allows them to practice collaboratively.

 

The Law Council of Australia’s Basic Training Requirements

In response to its increasing popularity of collaborative practice, the Law Council of Australia has published the Australian Collaborative Practice Guidelines for Lawyers. This document encompasses a series of “Basic Training” requirements in order to be recognised as being collaboratively trained. This set of overarching training requirements forms a best practice guide for ensuring practitioners engaging in collaborative law are appropriately prepared for acting in this unique practice area.

army-recruit-is-in-training-at-the-army-physical-training-school-brisbane-1942Image: Courtesy State Library of Queensland

 

The Basic Training requirements provide for the teaching of a range of skills that are unique to the practice of collaborative law. This is particularly so with the requirement that practitioners are provided with relevant training of the “collaborative model”.

 

What is Collaborative Practice?

Collaborative practice, as the name suggests, is a non-adversarial process used to resolve disputes. It requires the parties and their legal representatives to enter into a formal contract that puts the focus of the process settling a matter rather than resorting to litigation. Terms in the agreement generally refer to a commitment for each party to engage in the collaborative process in good faith and to share all available relevant information pertaining to the dispute with the other party. If the dispute is not resolved and parties seek to formally commence legal proceedings, the lawyers engaged in the collaborative process are contractually required to cease representing their clients. This requires the parties to engage new lawyers, generally at a significant cost, and serves as a major incentive to the parties to find common ground and work collaboratively to resolve their dispute.

Collaborative practice is conducted in the presence of each party and their legal adviser in what is described as a “four way meeting”. Several four way meetings take place over the course of a number of months, with each run according to agenda devised by the parties in consultation with their lawyers prior to the meeting. The conclusion of the four way meetings seeks to culminate in the drafting and execution of an agreement that resolves the dispute in a manner that is mutually acceptable to both parties.

 

The Unique Nature of Collaborative Practice

The collaborative model, as describe above, is an entirely unique approach to the resolution of disputes. While traditional mediation is also seen as an alternative to litigating matters, it differs from collaborative practice in many respects. The absence of a mediator in collaborative practice requires the legal representatives to facilitate the discussion rather than simply representing their client. Additionally, the capabilities necessary to operate collaboratively in the absence of a court-mandated framework for discovery and good faith negotiation is at odds with that of conventional alternative dispute resolution approaches. Accordingly, this skillset is unique to collaborative law practitioners.

The skills required of collaborative practitioners are also unique insofar as the model makes use of independent experts to facilitate the settlement of disputes. It is standard practice in a matter being resolved collaboratively to utilise the expertise of third party professionals, especially those who are trained as child specialists or financial advisors. These experts assist the parties and the lawyers in exploring interests (rather than positions) and potential options to satisfy the needs of the parties. Additionally, their experience assists the couple in being able to understand the impact of their separation on their children, as well as its effect on the financial position of each person once the dispute has finalised.

While the interaction of legal practitioners and independent experts is extremely common, the manner in which they work together in a collaborative setting compared with that of general legal practice is significantly different. In many jurisdictions, the relationship between independent expert is governed by a formal practice note, issued by the court. Lawyers typically engage independent experts by way of a formal retainer, setting out the advice necessary for the purposes of the matter. The expert will then write a formal report, setting out their findings. In many cases, an expert will be required to “hot tub” with an expert appointed by the opposing party in order to reach consensus conclusions and to narrow the issues in dispute. Additionally, experts retained in a litigation matter are subject to rigorous cross examination from other parties, adding an adversarial flavour to their contribution made for the purposes of resolving the matter.

In contrast, a collaborative approach requires each party to jointly appoint an expert, often by way of a shared recommendation by the practitioners representing them. The expert will work with each party in the room together and will rarely engage in separate discussions with parties individually. Rather than the lawyers approaching the assistance of an expert’s contribution as potentially suspect or misconstrued as may be the case in litigated disputes, they are able to respect and value their support in a truly collaborative fashion. Accordingly, the interdisciplinary approach to collaborative practice means a collaborative practitioner is required to have a unique skillset when involving experts in a matter being managed collaboratively.

 

Negotiation for All, Not Just the Collaborative

While there are many aspects of the “Basic Training” requirements that are unique to collaborative practitioners, it is clear that are not all exclusively within the domain of collaborative law.

A crucial example of this is the necessity that collaborative practitioners must be aware of and trained in negotiation theory; specifically, that of the differences between interest and positional-based bargaining.

A key tool in the arsenal of a collaborative practitioner is assisting the parties to consider the distinction between positions and interests. Unlike traditional positional bargaining, focusing on interests allows the parties to concentrate on the key issues that require resolution, rather than the parties becoming distracted on minor matters, falling into positional impasses or creating acrimony in the process. This prioritisation of interests, rather than positions, also assists the parties in being able to develop creative solutions that are mutually amenable, rather than being focused on finding a middle ground between two respective positions, neither of which may be the best holistic outcome.

But similar strategies are used in some forms of mediation generally, rather than solely within a collaborative setting. Facilitative mediation, for instance, also focuses on steering the parties toward concentrating on positions rather than interests. This occurs in a traditional mediation setting, involving the parties, their legal representatives and a trained mediator. Additionally, several popular negotiation courses offered by institutions such as MIT and Harvard University train legal practitioners and business executives to be aware of the distinction when being involved in a negotiation.

Accordingly, negotiation theory should not be considered solely a skill that is relevant to collaborative practitioners, but to the legal profession generally. Despite the differences in approach to alternative dispute resolution, ensuring that the legal profession is adequately trained to delineate between a client’s needs and wants should be recognised in considering the skills that are desirable for all practitioners to hold.

It is clear that collaborative practitioners are required to be appropriately trained in their interaction with fellow lawyers in a collaborative setting, the collaborative model in general and the manner in which the interdisciplinary focus of the practice differs from the general use of experts in a dispute. These are skillsets that, currently, are largely unique and confined to the practice of collaborative law. It is essential for the continued success of collaborative practice within Australia for the distinction between these attributes to other forms of alternative dispute resolution to be clear.

However, it can also be said that collaborative law requires skills that are not solely used within its discipline. A knowledge of negotiation theory is highly desirable for legal practitioners to possess for everyday dispute resolution, not just that involving collaborative practice. To that extent, it is clear that the collaborative practice “Basic Training” requirements of the Law Council of Australia encompass training that is both unique to collaborative practitioners and also relevant to the legal profession generally.

 

Mr Ben Zocco has recently completed Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees from Monash University and will be commencing as a graduate lawyer with a national law firm in 2017. He has spent the later years of his legal education studying various forms of alternative dispute resolution and looks forward to the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice as a lawyer.

 

 

Australia, all the way with ADR. Or are we?

I have been putting the finishing touches on my chapters for the second edition of our book Non-Adversarial Justice, to be published by Federation Press in the middle of this year. The book is co-written with Monash and former Monash law colleagues Michael King (now a Magistrate in WA), Arie Freiberg and Ross Hyams. The book brings together a collection of ideas and practices from disparate areas of the criminal and civil justice system that share some common responses to the adversarial nature of our legal system. We describe these processes as ‘non-adversarial justice’ which we acknowledge is a vague and probably overly negative term, but we have stuck with it because we haven’t been able to come up with anything better. The book explains our views on these commonalities and provides a chapter on the key aspects and ideas of each ‘non-adversarial’ practice or process, including therapeutic jurisprudence, ADR, restorative justice, preventive law, holistic law and creative problem-solving. The are also chapters which situate these ideas in various fields of practice and chapters which thematically draw together new ways of thinking on lawyers, courts and legal education. The book focuses on Australia with reference to international developments.

The first edition book came out in 2009.  In this new edition, we look back over the past 5 years of innovative Australian justice policy and conclude that:

“Because non-adversarialism is new and contentious it is also politically sensitive. Governments that regard this form of justice as being “soft” on crime, ineffective, “heavy-handed”, and expensive have abolished courts, schemes and programs while others recognise their value and have introduced procedural reforms, increased the number of courts and expanded their jurisdiction to cover new areas of harms or problems.”

I have been updating the chapters on family law processes and on ADR. Once of the things I enjoy about writing this book is how each chapter gives me a near-perfect helicopter-view of the terrain of that area.  In relation to ADR policy, there has been a noticeable cooling in government attitudes towards ADR processes within our broader civil justice system in the past half-decade. In particular, I have observed a drawing back from widespread implementation of ADR requirements in the justice system. This is evidenced by the repeal of pre-action legislation in both Victoria and NSW in 2011 and 2013 and, also in 2013, the dissolution of the 18-year-old National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council (or NADRAC), the independent body established to advise the federal Attorney-General on policy issues relating to ADR. In our book we summarise the Australian ambivalence towards ADR in the following way:

“These changes illustrate how the place of ADR and other non-adversarial processes in the justice system is contingent upon the support and patronage of government. Real resistance to non-adversarial practices remains and can make even established non-adversarial processes the subject of political contention. “

 Pre-action procedures, originally developed in England and Wales in the late 1990s, encourage early settlement of disputes, full disclosure of information between the parties and, where the matter cannot be resolved, the narrowing of the issues in dispute, all before proceedings have commenced. Effectively, they cement the place of ADR in the ordinary civil litigation process. Pre-action procedures have been introduced into three Australian jurisdictions since 2009, making this area the most dynamic in the already active field of ADR. However, the legislation introducing pre-action procedures has already been repealed in two of these jurisdictions (Victoria and NSW), revealing the significant unease that exists around the presence of ADR in the contemporary civil justice system in Australia, particularly where lawyers and the parties they represent are mandated to use ADR processes outside specialist jurisdictions. Only at Commonwealth level do pre-action procedures remain a at broad-scale level in Australia, known as “genuine steps” statements, which must be filed prior to litigating in the Federal Court of Australia and the general lists of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia under the Civil Dispute Resolution Act 2011 (Cth). So far, the federal government has indicated no public interest in changing these laws.

In England and Wales, where there are more than 12 -pre-action protocols covering particular areas of civil law, a recent review of rules and principles governing the costs of civil litigation found that the decade-old pre-action protocols system generally worked well, with a few tweeks necessary here and there. However it was recommended that one protocol that covered all areas of civil practical not governed by a specific protocol be repealed. Lord Justice Jackson, author of the review, argued that pre-action protocols work best when tailored to specific areas of practice rather than adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach to civil litigation generally.  

The English and Welsh experience of pre-action protocols shows that they can change litigation cultures and encourage more settlement (although ADR processes themselves may not be used). For Australia, the implications are that we may be better placed to develop pre-action procedures tailored to the peculiar litigation dynamics of specific areas of civil practice rather than broad-scale requirements as currently legislated in the Civil Dispute Resolution Act 2011 (Cth). Indeed in Australia, some specialist jurisdictions have for some time successfully required participation in ADR before court proceedings can be instituted for certain personal injury claims in Queensland, for farm debts in NSWfor NSW retail tenancy disputes, and in family law disputes since 2004. Failure to comply with these requirements opens a party up to an adverse costs order.

The recent skittishness around ADR policy in Australia can be connected to new governments coming to power and signalling that a new sheriff is in town. These governments, in Victoria, NSW and at federal level, have not benefited from years of high level bureaucratic advice on justice policy, may not share the commitment to ADR and may prefer to appeal to more conservative elements of the legal profession who see innovative dispute resolution policy as a challenge to the profession itself. The legal profession is inherently conservative and is slow to embrace widespread change. For so long, litigation, alongside negotiation associated with litigation practice, have been the way that lawyers have furthered their client’s interests. Compelling parties to use ADR processes such as mediation is a step too far in the eyes of many, as Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark explained in the 2011 second reading speech for the Civil Procedure and Legal Profession Amendment Act 2011 (Vic)

“It is common sense and good practice for parties to attempt to resolve their dispute without resorting to litigation if there is a reasonable prospect of success in such an attempt. However, the government’s view, and the view of many practitioners, is that to seek to compel parties to do so through these heavy-handed provisions will simply add to the complexity, expense and delay of bringing legal proceedings, because of the need to comply with these mandatory requirements, whether or not they are likely to be useful in any particular case.”  (Parliament of Victoria, Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Assembly, 10 February 2011, Victorian Government Printer, Melbourne,  p.307).

My own view is that governments across the Australian jurisdictions should be putting effort (and a great deal of effort, too) into ensuring that ADR processes that are provided are of high quality and have robust protections built in for the disadvantaged and vulnerable, acknowledging that not all cases should settle, although many can, so that court processes are still necessary and towards finding the right balance between legal and non-legal service provision for civil disputes. Getting these issues rights asks us to face the tough questions head-on and address the real tensions behind the ideal of access to justice in a constrained financial context. But this is the space we need to be in for us as a nation to develop the next frontier of justice policy. Whole-scale abolition of schemes designed to increase settlements as occurred in NSW and Victoria and dissolution of high-quality advisory bodies such as NADRAC takes us further away from where we need to be. These decisions have taken us backwards.

What do we all have to do to move forward on this important social issue?