Middle-manThis article was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Dispute Resolution Magazine. Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. Authored by Charles L. Howard.

In English common law, which forms the foundation for much of the US legal system, tradition and precedent are paramount. Because common law was built on the principles of lawyers, lawsuits, and the adversarial process, it’s no surprise that many people today assume that resolving a dispute means hiring an attorney and going to court. Even more modern approaches to resolving differences such as mediation, arbitration, and conciliation are seen through this traditional lens. They’re all alternatives to having your day in court.

But the concept of the “ombudsman,” a role that first appeared in Scandinavia about 300 years ago and has been implemented in the United States for only about half a century, springs from a very different idea. This broader view of dispute resolution comes from a separate tradition and premise: that organizations, including governments, should function effectively and that an independent, skilled agent within an organization can help make that happen. Resolving conflicts is part of that effective functioning, but it isn’t the only part. Understanding this view — and how the ombuds’ role has evolved to include ever more governmental functions and many other complex systems — helps us see why and how ombuds can provide crucial help both to individuals and organizations.

Read the full article here.