Frank Sander, dispute resolution visionary and hero, recently died, aged 91.
I thought it would be worthwhile exploring some of Sander’s achievements and impact from an Australian civil justice perspective. In particular, I will consider the relevance of Sander’s multi-door court house idea to Australia today.
For many years, I have been teaching Non-Adversarial Justice to undergraduate law students at Monash University. The wonderful, far-ranging discussions we have in those classes have given me the chance to reflect on the impact of Sander’s work here in Melbourne, Australia.
Sander was a professor of law and dispute resolution at Harvard University in the USA. He is associated with developing the ‘multi-door courthouse‘ idea: that a single court could triage the civil matters that came before it and provide a range of dispute resolution services (both litigious and settlement-based) depending on what is needed in each case. A multi-door courthouse is a dispute resolution centre where a grievant, with the help of a screening officer at the court, is directed to an appropriate process or series of processes. This approach is underpinned by the view that court costs and delay are increased by ill-matched disputes and processes.
In many ways the multi-door courthouse is the civil equivalent of the criminal problem-oriented court, which aims to reduce re-offending by addressing the underlying causes of criminal behaviour.
Sander is also credited with developing the now ubiquitous idea of fitting the forum to the fuss (that each matter should use an appropriate dispute resolution process). In Australia in 2018, this an uncontroversial goal, which, unfortunately, is still a long way from reality in the civil justice system.
To develop ideas that become pervasive and which define a field has a something to do with luck (timing, place, race, gender etc). But not every lucky person has clear thinking, vision and the ability to convince others. Sander was clearly an ideas man and we listened. The impact of his thinking on civil justice systems and court practice is significant, even in far-away places such as Australia.
Sander gave a famous speech in which he first set out his ideas on the civil justice system at the 1976 Pound conference held in St Paul, Minnesota and organised by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Warren Burger. Many, including Jeffrey Stempel regard this conference as the genesis of the modern ADR and court reform movement. Stempel argues that this conference was notable in its criticism of the litigation process, its promotion of ADR by its “all star cast” including the cream of the American court and legal establishment as well is the publishing of its proceedings in West’s Federal Rules Decisions, guaranteeing wide exposure of the conference’s pro-ADR sentiments, especially to the nation’s federal judges. The proceedings of the Pound Conference can be found in ‘National Conference on the Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice’ (Apr. 7-9, 1976) in 70 F.R.D. 79 (1976). The 1976 conference has, of course, spawned the contemporary Global Pound conferences.
Sander’s speech was at the heart of what the conference acheived. According to Diane Levin, at the 1976 Pound Conference, Sander
reminded conference participants of the limitations of traditional litigation with its “use of a third party with coercive power, the usually ‘win or lose’ nature of the decision, and the tendency of the decision to focus narrowly on the immediate matter in issue as distinguished from a concern with the underlying relationship between the parties.” He urged conference participants to envision alternatives, a “rich variety of different processes, which, I would submit, singly or in combination, may provide far more ‘effective’ conflict resolution.” And he reminded them of “the central quality of mediation”, namely “its capacity to reorient the parties toward each other, not by imposing rules on them, but by helping them to achieve a new and shared perception of their relationship, a perception that will redirect their attitudes and dispositions toward one another.”
This is a call for the integration of ‘ADR’ with the ordinary everyday business of civil courts. (There is a very readable exploration of the origins of Sander’s Pound paper here).
More than 40 years later, Sander’s call has largely been answered. We know that settlement has always been part of civil litigation (thanks Marc Galanter for giving us the term ‘litigotitation’). But since Sander gave that speech, various forms of ADR, especially mediation and arbitration, have become part of standard court practice in most jurisdictions. For example, the Supreme Court of NSW offers both mediation and arbitration for civil matters under Parts 4 and 5 of the Civil Procedure Act 2005 (NSW). Referral to ADR can be mandatory in most Australian courts. Court-connected ADR services in Australia are provided by in-house staff or by external service providers.
However, most Australian courts could not be called multi-door courthouses. One reason why, is that formalised dispute resolution screening processes are not in place in most Australian courts. (The NSW Land and Environment Court is a clear exception).
What I think Sander didn’t quite get it right is that his focus was largely on the courts. To my mind, the locus of conflict and dispute resolution is not at the pointy court-end of the dispute resolution pyramid, but the heavier bottom-part. Most people who have a ‘legal problem’ don’t go near a court but choose or are forced to use other methods of dealing with their matter. These methods include direct action such as physical retaliation, seizure of property or removal of offending objects, informal negotiation or exit and avoidance (‘lumping’ the problem). That’s certainly what goes on in my house!
Court-based triage and assessment of problems is going to offer very little to most people who never even conceive of their ‘problems’ as court-worthy nor have the funds to litigate. When researchers measure ADR use, there is always very low awareness of ADR processes in the community and low uptake and use of formal ADR services. Even ADR services are not the only answer.
The multi-door courthouse doesn’t reflect more recent government efforts to encourage efficiency in the civil justice system in Australia and the UK. Pre-action protocols/procedures have been implemented widely in England and Wales following the Lord Woolf Report and more sparingly (but significantly) in Australia. Pre-action procedures encourage early settlement of disputes, full disclosure of information between parties and, where the matter cant be resolved, the narrowing of issues in dispute, but all before proceedings have commenced. Pre-action procedures are important because they force the location of ADR services away from the courts and towards pre-trial services offered by non-court providers or undertaken informally. Tania Sourdin argues that pre-action procedures are a significant shift away from Sander’s multi-door courthouse and towards a “more modern multi-option dispute resolution model.”
I would argue that they key idea behind Sander’s multi-door courthouse idea, matching the forum to the fuss, should and does still exist as a guiding principle of Australian civil justice systems. While the location of dispute resolution activity has shifted away from the courts (in Australia at least) Sander’s ideas have shaped the civil justice landscape of our country.
Thank you, Frank.
Aspects of this post are based upon ‘Chapter 7: ADR: Appropriate or Alternative Dispute Resolution’ in King, Freiberg Batagol & Hyams Non-Adversarial Justice (2nd ed, 2014).
Thank you for this thoughtful piece Becky.
I am feeling a deep sense of loss. Studying with Frank at Harvard, spending a short stint as one of his teaching fellows and holidaying with him and his family, were some of the most memorable experiences of my life – not just for his three-dimensional and forward thinking approach to ADR but also for the way he showed us all how to live in the world. A loving husband to the gentle Emily and a very engaged father, his professional and family lives showed a consistent, ethical and authentic approach to living with integrity. It was an honour to have spent time in his shadow – we miss you Frank and we will remember what you taught us.
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