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Informal resolution and alternative dispute resolution: What’s the difference?

As the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces, I have oversight of the Service Complaints system. But what some people don’t know is that not all complaints are dealt with this way.

The Service Complaints system is the formal mechanism for resolving specific types of grievances[1] raised by Service personnel. However, many complaints are successfully dealt with using informal complaint resolution and alternative dispute resolution (ADR). These are exceptionally important tools in any complaints system because not every complaint needs to go through the full formal process to be properly handled or successfully resolved.

Informal resolution and alternative dispute resolution are often used interchangeably, but it is not correct to do so because they are very different processes.

Informal Resolution is…. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is….
an agreed way of dealing with a complaint outside of the formal procedures. a specific and structured way of dealing with a complaint outside of the standard formal procedure. ADR includes mediation, arbitration and conciliation. In terms of Service Complaints, it refers to mediation.
usually recommended for less serious complaints, or where a full investigation is not required to determine what has happened and who was responsible. usually recommended where the complaint can be resolved by bringing the parties together for facilitated discussion by a neutral third party.
generally not suitable for complaints about bullying, harassment and discrimination that may require robust investigation and a formal record of decision. generally not suitable where there is an imbalance of power that cannot be successfully mitigated by the mediator/third party.
a process that can be facilitated by someone who doesn’t have specific training or qualifications. However, the person should have access to informal resolution guidelines and know where to access support if required. a process that can only be facilitated by a qualified practitioner.
a voluntary process a voluntary process.
something that can be tried before resorting to either alternative dispute resolution or the formal process. something that can be tried before resorting to the formal process.

Neither process is a “less serious” way of resolving a complaint, just a different way to achieve resolution.

Why are there so many ways to resolve a complaint? Put simply: not all complaints are equal in terms of the level of resource that is required to resolve them.  What is required will depend on the subject matter of the complaint.

Let’s take a complaint about an OJAR as an example. On the face of it, it might seem that it is a simple complaint that readily lends itself to informal resolution. But how it can or should be dealt with will ultimately depend partly on the specific issues raised in the complaint.

Informal resolution


Formal resolution

An individual is unhappy with their performance review. They believe that information included about a task they undertook contains factual inaccuracies.

If the complaint concerns a factual inaccuracy in a report, this should be fairly straightforward to identify and correct via informal processes.



A complainant could always opt for ADR to resolve this complaint; however, it would not necessarily be the ideal or quickest solution.





A complainant always reserves the right to have a complaint dealt with using formal processes. However, this could end up being a much lengthier process than is required.

An individual is unhappy with their performance review. They believe that their Reporting Officer has shown bias. Informal resolution could work. However, if the complainant believes there is bias, it may be difficult to resolve the complaint this way.



ADR is often very helpful in these types of situations, especially if a continued working relationship is required. The primary aim is to bring two parties together so that they can understand the other person’s experience and perspective and reach a resolution.







A complainant always has the right to ask for their complaint to be dealt with under the formal process.  Because bias is a type of improper behaviour, formal processes are suitable for dealing with this type of complaint. However, this might not be the best choice if both parties are willing to work towards a resolution.

An individual is unhappy with their performance review. They believe that they have been unfairly assessed due to racism. This is an issue that requires a full investigation. Therefore, informal resolution is not appropriate.  


ADR brings parties together to discuss the issues, but it doesn’t conduct an investigation or make formal findings. For these reasons, it would generally not be suitable to use where allegations of racism have been made.

Formal complaints processes are set up to deal with these types of issues. They allow for a full investigation to be completed and findings to be made about what has happened, who is responsible, and what needs to be done to put it right.

Having these options available offers more choice to complainants and allows certain complaints to be resolved faster than the formal process. This makes them exceptionally important tools in the complaints process. However, while I strongly encourage all suitable complaint resolution options to be discussed with complainants, I do so with the following two caveats:

  1. Some complaints simply do not lend themselves to informal resolution or ADR.
  2. Both processes are voluntary. It is ultimately for the complainant to decide how they wish to try and resolve their complaint.

[1]  A Service Complaint is a complaint made by a current or former Service person about how they were wronged in their Service life. There are certain issues that cannot form the basis of a Service Complaint. These are listed in The Armed Forces (Service Complaints Miscellaneous Provisions) Regulations 2015. In addition, there are some issues that need to go through a specific complaints process before they can form the basis of a Service Complaint. These are called Special to Type (STT) issues and they include, but are not limited to medial complaints, pay and housing.