Our project is coming to an end and we wanted to share some of our findings.
What is the project about?
This three-year project (2017-2020) investigates access to justice for vulnerable and energy poor consumers. We have done extensive fieldwork in the UK, Bulgaria, Catalonia, France and Italy and collected valuable insights into access to justice and its obstacles for energy poor consumers.
The main questions asked: has ADR extended the reach of justice to those who have traditionally been excluded from the formal justice system? To what extent does ADR represent a solution to the converging agendas of justice and consumer policy to provide cost-effective, accessible justice, which protects the vulnerable in society? And if ADR replicates some of the well-known limitations of the formal justice system in this respect, then where else can solutions be found? Our research sheds light on timeless questions of socio-legal interest, at the same time as addressing the urgent question of whether the current, radical shift towards informality in European consumer dispute resolution is serving the interests of ordinary citizens.
The project team
The project is led by Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt and Dr Chris Gill who are socio-legal scholars with expertise in ADR, access to justice, dispute systems design and empirical methodology. Part of the team are Rachel McPherson, lecturer in law at the university of Glasgow and Marine Cornelis, energy expert consultant.
Some key findings
A longstanding concern of socio-legal scholarship has been to investigate how ordinary people do (and do not) access justice. Analyses of legal systems across the world have overwhelmingly concluded that access to justice is highly constrained for ordinary citizens and even more so for those who might be considered vulnerable. Vulnerable and energy poor consumers in Europe face significant barriers in accessing justice.
Amongst the solutions offered to remedy the failings of existing systems of justice (too costly, unpredictable in outcome and duration), Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has featured prominently. With promises of cost-savings, increased party satisfaction, and longer lasting conflict resolution, policymakers in Europe are increasingly pursuing policies to boost ADR provision, at the same time as reducing access to courts. This has been particularly evident in relation to consumer-to-business disputes in Europe, where a large-scale shift has occurred towards resolving disputes out-of-court through the implementation of the consumer ADR directive (2013/11/EU). While the development of ADR has been welcomed in some quarters, there is a lack of empirical evidence regarding the access to justice benefits that have accrued from it, especially for those that are most vulnerable and most likely to be socially excluded.
Our empirical data suggests exactly this: the most vulnerable do not access ADR. The access to justice discourses are often dominated by legal and policy elites, so that issues are framed in narrow, top-down ways that fail to address the reality of people’s everyday “justice problems”. This excludes those who need the system to work for them the most. Some interview extracts are presented here to illustrate:
“Mostly people that go to ombudsmen are like well educated, middle aged, et cetera, and it’s like, are those vulnerable customers?… [Vulnerable consumers might] go to the town hall to see the social worker. But, many of them don’t even knock that door, so I don’t imagine these people going to the ombudsman… They are not knocking any door.” (Catalan Policy 3)
“… we know there’s only a fraction of people that actually come to us… There’s a moral obligation that you want to try to help people that are in a different situation.” (UK Ombudsman 5)
“You have to try and solve as many problems as you can before you get to ombudsman, usually. I’ve never, again, really thought about them as sort of having a leading role… it’s hard to get complaints through, [in a] sort of timely [way]…” (UK Third Sector 2)
“… some of the most vulnerable of all you might not be able to identify because, either they’ve fallen off the grid or… Fuel poverty… that’s really hard to pick up, because you might have someone who is paying their energy bill, so, you’ll never pick it up that way. But what they’re doing is, they’re using too little energy, because they can’t afford to. They’re vulnerable but I’ll never pick them up.” (UK Ombudsman 1)
We also found that local actors (e.g. NGOs) make a substantial contribution to bridging the gap between top-down policy and the energy poor. In this article, we argued that these actors represent an adaptive response to the inherent limitations of state and supra-national action and, therefore, play a key role in the governance of energy poverty. In presenting this argument, we suggest, as an avenue for future research, nodal governance as a lens through which to understand the role local actors play in the governing order for tackling energy poverty (Journal of Consumer Policy volume 43, pages 635–658(2020)).
This is relevant as the EU mentioned in its new consumer strategy that local level advice for vulnerable consumers will be promoted. You can find a summary here.
At our recent end of project conference we presented some conclusions that fed into our book and future plans.
| Main ESRC Just Energy findings:|
1. It is difficult for vulnerable consumers to access formal sources of help;
2. ADR could be strengthened to play a bigger access to justice role;
3. Local actors (community, third sector) are well placed to help vulnerable people;
4. Joining up formal and informal actors is key to addressing access to justice gaps.
We are just finishing our book: A socio-legal inquiry into access to justice for vulnerable and energy poor consumers: Just Energy? (Hart 2021).
How do ordinary people access justice? This book offers a novel socio-legal approach to access to justice, alternative dispute resolution, vulnerability and energy poverty. It poses an access to justice challenge and proposes to rethink it through a lens that accommodates all affected people, especially those who are currently falling through the system. It raises broader questions about alternative dispute resolution, the need for reform to include more collective approaches, a stronger recognition of the needs of vulnerable people, and a stronger emphasis on delivering social justice. The authors use energy poverty as a site of vulnerability and examine the barriers to justice facing this excluded group.
The book assembles the findings of an interdisciplinary research project studying access to justice and its barriers in the UK, Italy, France, Bulgaria and Spain (Catalonia). In-depth interviews with regulators, ombuds, energy companies, third sector organisations and vulnerable people provide a rich dataset through which to understand the phenomenon.
The book provides theoretical and empirical insights which shed new light on these issues and sets out new directions of inquiry for research, policy and practice. It will be of interest to researchers, students and policymakers working on access to justice, consumer vulnerability, energy poverty, and the complex intersection between these fields.
With contributions by Cosmo Graham (UK), Sarah Supino and Benedetta Voltaggio (Italy), Marine Cornelis (France), Anais Varo and Enric Bartlett (Catalonia) and Teodora Peneva (Bulgaria).
We will implement two projects: a toolkit for practitioners and a repository of examples of access to justice for energy users.
The toolkit will fill the gaps and help practitioners engage with vulnerable people and communities. It aims to bring information to users and to broaden access to justice for energy-poor and vulnerable citizens. We appreciate your feedback, so please drop as an email, and add to our padlet: https://padlet.com/creutzn/toolkit
Our next initiative is a platform that tells stories about people’s experiences, shares ideas, and raises awareness does just this. It tells stories of ordinary people and how they have overcome their struggles with the help of different actors. We would be thrilled to receive more inputs to add to it, share it, spread the word so together we can help people access energy justice.