Striking the Right Balance between Maintaining Confidentiality and Educating the Community about Discrimination

By Dominique Allen

“ADR represents a symbolic harking back to a lost age when caring for others within a communal setting was of pre-eminent importance; it constitutes a reaction against the alienating and competitive style of dispute resolution fostered by an adversarial system.”

– Margaret Thornton, The Liberal Promise (Oxford University Press, 1990, 147)

Image: Unsplash

This year marks 30 years since Emerita Professor Margaret Thornton published The Liberal Promise, a critique of anti-discrimination law in which she argued that liberalism, in the form of anti-discrimination law, will be unable to achieve equality because it can do little to disrupt the power structures that maintain inequalities in society.

As Thornton writes, anti-discrimination law does not give people a right to be free from discrimination; it gives them a right to complain about their treatment. Now – as then – a person who has been discriminated against is required to lodge a complaint at their local equality agency or at the Australian Human Rights Commission. The agency must attempt to conciliate the claim before the complainant can proceed to a civil tribunal or to the Federal Court (other than in Victoria). Courts and tribunals usually attempt to resolve claims via mediation also.

In the chapter she devotes to conciliation, Thornton says that she is ‘equivocal’ about it. Her primary concern was that as the process is confidential, it can have little impact on discrimination in society; its effect is limited to the parties. She didn’t suggest that courts are the ideal forum for discrimination claims though. She writes that complainants find courts “hostile and alienating”, litigation is not well suited to dealing with the types of issues that arise in a discrimination claims, it is costly, and courts are not well equipped to deal with power imbalances, which are common in these disputes. Thus conciliation serves a valid purpose.

In this post, I consider whether Thornton’s concerns about conciliation still apply, drawing on interviews I conducted with barristers and solicitors in Melbourne and conciliators at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in 2017-2019.

One of Thornton’s primary concerns was that although discriminatory acts take place “in the public arena”, the dispute resolution process does not allow public scrutiny of these acts. They must be dealt with confidentially and in a “non-threatening privatised environment”. A public hearing is a last resort.

I share her concern, particularly because in the three decades that have passed, the problem has been compounded by an increased use of confidentiality clauses (often termed Non-Disclosure Agreements).

My research revealed that confidentiality clauses are regularly included in settlement agreements. They prevent the complainant from discussing the nature of the complaint and the terms of settlement. Some are worded so tightly that they prevent the complainant from discussing the claim with anyone, even with a close family member. It is difficult for the law to have an educative effect when claims are privatised and hidden in this way.

However, the process may well educate on an individual level. Conciliators said that just by participating in the dispute resolution process and listening to the complainant talk about their experience, respondents can be educated about their legal obligations and may well introduce changes to their business or workplace as a result. In this way, the process itself becomes part of the solution and a way of addressing harm.

An advantage of conciliation, Thornton writes, is that it creates a space where complainants can achieve small victories which would be “unlikely, if not impossible” within the formal legal system. My interviewees confirmed this. They said that through conciliation, complainants negotiate changes to working arrangements, access to goods and services, modifications to the delivery of education, and compensation payments far in excess of what the tribunal is likely to award. The tribunal, by contrast, orders compensation, often at low amounts which may not be enough to cover the complainant’s legal fees.

So am I equivocal about conciliation? In my view it is an effective way for the parties to resolve the underlying issues that caused the dispute and potentially reach a shared understanding of what happened. They may even be able to maintain a relationship going forward, which is very important in the employment and education contexts.

Being heard and knowing that their complaint has been taken seriously is often very important to complainants. Litigation will not give them that opportunity. Nor are courts likely to make the systemic orders which are needed to tackle discrimination, whereas respondents do agree to wider outcomes at conciliation.

I’m in favour of conciliation with the qualifier that we must be aware of its limitations. Confidentiality precludes the law’s development, it may allow ‘repeat offenders’ to continue undetected and it hides the prevalence of discrimination in the community. We need to find ways to alleviate its limitations.

The balance has yet to be struck between the parties’ desire to contain the complaint and the community’s interest in knowing about the types of discrimination that still exist and how discrimination is being addressed.