Access to justice for vulnerable and energy poor consumers in Europe

This month, Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt (University of Westminster) and Dr Chris Gill (University of Glasgow) launched their new project investigating access to justice for vulnerable and energy poor consumers in Europe, “Just Energy“. The project has been funded by the  UK Economic and Social Research Council and will run for three years, up until August 2020. This post provides a brief summary of the project.

The growing importance of ADR in consumer disputes

Is alternative dispute resolution (ADR) resulting in more accessible justice? This is the key research question and is of growing importance in light of the expansion of ADR for consumer-to-business disputes. In 2008, 530,000 cases were referred to ADR in Europe. And yet only 43% of consumers report that ADR is easy to use. In this context, some have questioned whether ADR is meeting consumer needs. At the same time, debate about access to justice has shifted from a focus on demographic groups (e.g. the poor) to a broader focus on vulnerability. This more challenging concept is the focus of this project.

The energy sector: intersection of ADR and vulnerability

Why look at the energy sector? First, it is a sector where the European Union has mandated ADR as a means of promoting access to justice. Second, energy consumers are particularly prone to detriment, with 8.9 million problems experienced in the UK in 2015. Third, the consequences of detriment are severe, with 10.8% of the EU’s population living in fuel poverty. Fourth, energy consumers are particularly at risk of vulnerability. Fifth, ADR is an explicit means through which policymakers are seeking to tackle vulnerability. For these five reasons, the energy sector is an important site at which access to justice, ADR, and vulnerability intersect.

An interdisciplinary problem

Issues of access to justice are strongly associated with socio-legal traditions, but their role in promoting market efficiency, business regulation, and public accountability mean that they are also of interest to those studying business, economics, and political science. Similarly, vulnerability is the subject of an interdisciplinary scholarship concerned with understanding social exclusion, social justice, and poverty, frequently drawing on sociological perspectives. This project seeks to contribute to diverse fields of academic enquiry and draw on a range of theoretical and methodological approaches in doing so.

Key themes: access to justice, consumer vulnerability, and dispute system design

The research builds on existing scholarship and its major contribution will be to literature on the role of ADR in access to justice. ADR proponents say it is cheaper, quicker, more accessible. Critics question how accessible it is and whether it provides access to settlement, not justice. The research will also contribute to literature on dispute system design (DSD) and consumer vulnerability, by exploring how ADR design affects access to justice for consumers in vulnerable circumstances.

Impact on policy and practice

This project will provide policymakers, regulators, consumer advice organisations, ombudsmen and energy companies with data that will allow for the future development of evidence-based policy and practice. In particular, understanding how dispute system design and broader institutional contexts affect access to justice for the vulnerable will allow legislators and regulators to develop policies based on consideration of comparative best practices across Europe. A particular gap at present is in exploring how broader systems of consumer protection can contribute to the accessibility of redress schemes for vulnerable people.

Next steps

The project is now live and you can follow the project blog and twitter account (@esrcjustenergy). Naomi and Chris will shortly be recruiting for a Research Assistant to join their team and starting the first phase of the research, which involves producing in-depth reports on the countries in our sample. The first interim project reports will be published in 2018.