Equality Tribunal mediation facilitates quicker dispute resolution

The informal mediation service provided by Ireland's Equality Tribunal since December 2000 has facilitated a more speedy resolution of equality disputes at work, compared with the traditional, and more formal, equality investigation route. A report on the Tribunal's first two years of mediation activity was published in December 2002.

Ireland’s ODEI-Equality Tribunal is an independent quasi-judicial body established in 1999, whose core function is to investigate, and/or mediate, complaints of unlawful discrimination at work (IE0008218N). According to the Equality Tribunal, its new mediation service is, on average, three times quicker than the alternative equality dispute resolution option – a formal investigation decided by an equality officer. Equality cases that have resulted in mediated agreements have been completed in just six months (from the original date of referral to the date of signing the agreement), compared with an average of 18 months in employment investigation cases (again, from the original date of referral to the date of decision).

This is one of the main findings in a report on the first year or so of mediation at the Equality Tribunal, entitled Developments in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) launched on 2 December 2002 in Dublin. The Tribunal began offering mediation, through five mediation officers, in December 2000, as an alternative mechanism for resolving disputes to the traditional channel of formal investigation.

Launching the report, the director of the Equality Tribunal, Melanie Pine, said: 'Mediation can achieve a 'win-win' situation. Innovative and creative solutions are possible, allowing both sides to reach an agreement that meets their particular needs.'

Demystifying the mediation process

Ms Pine commented that one of the main purposes of the report is to 'demystify the mediation process.' In contrast to the more formal investigation process, under which an equality officer, as the third party, decides the outcome, and there is 'always a winner and a loser', the mediation process involves dispute resolution by direct negotiation between the disputing parties.

Moreover, mediation is guided by the principle of self-determination and is completely voluntary (either party may withdraw at any stage), informal, and does not involve written submissions. Agreements are not published (unlike equality officer decisions in investigations), and the parties are also given a 'cooling-off' period before being asked to sign an agreement, to ensure that both sides can give informed consent on signing. Any agreement, once signed, is legally binding and enforceable.

A key distinction between equality mediation and labour mediation (which occurs through Ireland’s Labour Relations Commission[(LRC]) referred to in the report, is that, whereas under labour conciliation, there is an assumption that a compromise settlement will be reached somewhere in the 'middle ground', no such assumption is made in equality mediation. In addition, whereas parties to a labour dispute are expected to use the service of the LRC before referring an issue to the Labour Court– which is supposed to be Ireland’s court of last resort in this area - parties to an equality dispute can refer an issue straight to investigation, rather than having to go through mediation beforehand.

The report’s analysis of the results achieved since Christmas 2000 shows that 139 cases out of 270 referred for equality mediation have completed the mediation process, with a mutually acceptable agreement reached in 50% of cases (23 agreements were reached through employment equality mediation, and 46 through equal status mediation). Of the 23 employment mediation agreements reached, 10 involved race, five disability, and four gender. Twenty-nine cases were withdrawn and settled outside the mediation process, leaving 82 'live' mediation cases as of 30 November 2002.

Significantly, in approximately half of the cases that were resolved, an outline agreement was reached in the first session, which is scheduled to last two hours. In general, the mediation process rarely involves more than two sessions before an agreement is formally signed. In the event that agreement is not reached, the complainant may seek to return the issue to traditional investigation.

Compensation

The analysis also reveals that, in nearly 13% of employment equality mediation agreements, and nearly 22% on equal status, monetary compensation was not an issue. Where compensation was an issue, the amounts paid in employment cases were below EUR 2,000 in 55% of cases, and below EUR 1,000 in 80% of equal status cases. Total employment compensation amounted to EUR 73,125, with an average of EUR 3,656, a maximum of EUR 14,398, and a minimum of EUR 519.

The ODEI-Equality Tribunal was formerly know as the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations (ODEI), but altered its name in July 2002, as a result of confusion between its own role, and that of the Equality Authority, which is a separate, non-judicial body.

Commentary

The Equality Tribunal’s mediation service is a voluntary process that provides parties with a more informal avenue for resolving equality disputes, compared with the greater formality of the traditional investigation route. Since its inception in December 2000, the mediation service has provided a speedier means of processing disputes than the investigation route. (Tony Dobbins, IRN)

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