Participation in complaints

In this post Jane Williams discusses some research she completed with Chris Gill and Naomi Creutzfeldt which highlights the value consumers attach to being able to participate effectively in complaint resolution.  

In 2017 we carried undertook research for research Consumer Advice on the UK’s current approach to ADR ‘Confusion, gaps and overlaps:  A consumer perspective on the UK’s alternative dispute resolution between consumers and businesses’. Revisiting this research is timely in light of the UK Government’s current consultation on reforming competition and consumer policy which includes proposals for improving ADR. For the purposes of this post though I wanted to focus on how ‘participation’ emerged as an important theme from our interview data and its implications for resolving complaints.

Consumer complaints are often described as being ‘low value’ and ‘transactional’. The assumption can be that these consumers are more focused on getting their dispute resolved cheaply and quickly than other factors. Our research suggests that this is not the case and consumers have expectations of high levels of good quality participation in their interactions with consumer ADR bodies. 

We already knew from ‘justice theory’ that a consumer’s willingness to accept the decision of the complaints handling body will depend on: (1) whether they think the outcome itself is fair (and as expected this is very much influenced by whether the complaint has been decided in their favour); (2) whether they think the process used is fair; and (3) whether they also think the interactional elements are fair.  

We also knew from Naomi Creutzfeldt’s (2018) work that users’ perceptions of ADR are more highly correlated with outcome than in other in other contexts including public services.   

We therefore used a ‘ladder of legal participation’ developed by McKeever (2013) as a framework to get a better understanding of the level of participation consumers are looking for when using consumer ADR. This framework has been developed in the context of tribunals in the UK and we felt that there were some similarities in the types of disputes these forms of dispute resolution both cover. McKeever says that ‘Central to this idea of participation is the notion of power: power can be withheld, so that power-holders retain control, or it can be shared so that individual citizens may be empowered.’ The ‘ladder of legal participation’ recognises three main levels as shown in the Figure below – participation, tokenism and non-participation.

Figure 1 McKeever’s Ladder of Legal Participation

Using this framework we found that consumers were looking for high levels of participation despite the apparent low value of their claims. Satisfied consumers emphasised the importance of participation in explaining their positive experience. They highlighted the value they placed in ease of contact and simply being able to talk to someone at the scheme and not having to rely on email contact in order to reach a shared understanding of the complaint.

In contrast those whose experiences were more negative focused on the exact opposite.  Those who felt that the participation was ‘tokenistic’ highlighted how time delays were seen as ‘obstructive’ and that referral fatigue was also evident when it came to asking for decisions to be reviewed. Relying on written communication, use of jargon and the recommendation of inappropriate remedies such as a credit on an account or a credit note also contributed to a sense of ‘tokenism’ in terms of the level of participation.

Some of our interviewees did not feel they had been able to effectively participate at all. Communicating using terminology similar to the organisation being complained about led to a perception of ‘them and us’.  They highlighted a perceived ‘lack of interest in their complaint’ and shock and surprise that the body was not able to do more. This perception existed despite the fact that some of the complaints had been upheld either in full or in part.

Going forward what lessons can be learnt from this? Consumers clearly have high expectations around participation and organisations may wonder how they can satisfy this while also being realistic about the resource constraints they have to work within. 

Where expectations are unrealistic then it is, of course, reasonable for organisations to consider how those expectations can be reduced. ‘Managing expectations’ therefore has to be more than just saying no and needs to include understanding what consumers want and ensuring that the complaints systems we design take account of them.     

In my view, a focus on participation provides a helpful way that organisations and individual complaint handlers can think about what is important to people and how to incorporate a more participatory approach to complaint systems. This includes designing complaint systems that recognise the complexity and individuality of complaints and encourages dialogue. It includes ensuring that complaint handlers are not limited or constrained by what the system allows them to do. A more participatory approach also extends to those who have been complained about as well as complaint handlers and there will be more on these topics in future posts.   


Creutzfeldt, N. Ombudsmen and ADR: A Comparative Study of Informal Justice in Europe (2018).

Gill, C., Creutzfeldt, N., Williams, J., O’Neil S., and Vivian, N.  2017.  Confusion, gaps and overlaps:  A consumer perspective on the UK’s alternative dispute resolution between consumers and businesses   Available online from 

McKeever, G. 2013 a Ladder of Legal Participation for Tribunal Users.  Public Law 575.

Williams, J., Gill, C., Creutzfeldt, N., and Vivian N.  2020.  Participation as a framework for analysing consumers’ experiences of alternative dispute resolution. 47(2)  Journal of Law and Society pp. 271-297. DOI:10.1111/jols.12224 

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