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Resolving a legal dispute needn't require a full courtroom drama

by Andrew Fraser, senior CAS policy officer.

This article was first published in the Herald on 22 August 2022.

When we think of using the legal system to resolve an issue, certain images come to mind: attending a court room, gavels, and judges with their wigs. However, for many civil legal matters, there may be other ways to resolve issues that don’t involve going to court.

ADR, or Alternative Dispute Resolution to give it its full name, refers to ways that people can resolve disputes without using formal court processes.

Using ADR can have advantages for both clients and the court and tribunal system. The earlier people can access advice and support and attempt to resolve disputes the better. We all know early intervention can reduce the impact, cost, time, and distress that issues can cause people, especially when this is compared to the cost and stress of appearing in court. 

ADR could have significant benefits for our courts and tribunals too, by helping to prevent further pressure on already over-stretched court resources. With the backlog of cases in the Scottish Justice system sitting at around the 40,000 mark, there has never been a better time to look at ways of resolving disputes earlier and preventing the need for formal court action.

These benefits are clear to see and as more people learn about ADR, the more popular these services become. During the pandemic, the Citizens Advice network saw an increase in demand for advice on ADR across a range of issues such as housing, employment, consumer, relationships, utilities, and healthcare. We believe now is a good time to see a significant shift in resources towards this in order to help people resolve their disputes at an earlier stage. 

We recently asked Citizens Advice Bureaux across Scotland about their experience and knowledge of ADR. They told us they were generally confident in their awareness of ADR and in their ability to support clients through the ADR system. However, many highlighted some barriers to accessing services. These included difficulty in finding information on local services, costs, inaccessible or off-putting processes, and limited public transport in rural areas.

We will work with Scottish and UK Governments to improve access to ADR services to support people to resolve disputes. We want to see ADR services expanded across Scotland so that every consumer, no matter their location, or the nature of their issue, can access these services.

We also want to make sure these services are accessible to vulnerable consumers and that people who need extra help to use these services can be properly supported to do so. We need to make sure that people know what ADR services are, that there is clear information on how to access them, and that the processes used by ADR providers are straightforward and easily understandable.

If you are wondering whether ADR might help with a problem that you are facing that has a legal dimension, whether it’s a consumer problem, or an issue regarding family, housing or employment, remember that your local CAB can give free, impartial and confidential help. Regardless of whether the problem is big or small, one-off or interconnected, your CAB will provide advice and support so that you can approach these legal processes in a confident and informed way. And importantly, we don’t judge, we just help.