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The social organization of case processing by administrative tribunals Lioy, Michele L.


This study provides an ethnographic analysis of case processing by administrative tribunals. The processing of cases is done to review decisions which already have been made at another level in the administrative system, in order to arrive at a 'new' decision. The analysis is based on data collected through the systematic observation of hearing encounters in three administrative tribunals in the field of social welfare. This study documents the tribunals' practices in arriving at a new decision. It shows how the social organizational features of the hearings and, the legal and procedural constraints which must be taken into consideration, affect the decision of the tribunal members both individually and collectively, and the outcome for the appellants. The fact that the tribunals' task is to arrive at a decision and the possibility that the 'new' decision may be reviewed are other factors which impose constraints on the tribunals' practices. The task of processing cases mainly consists in assessing the story which is jointly produced during the hearing by the appellant and the tribunal members who use the case file in order to obtain background information on the case. The three tribunals examined in this study use different practices to process cases. The lay tribunals use mostly common sense practices which prevent them from rendering consistent decisions especially when the legislation left them discretion. The professional tribunal uses legal practices which ensure more consistency, but do not ensure that the appellant feels that justice has been done. In fact, the issue is raised as to whether social justice is achieved, even when the decisions are legally attained, when cognitive discrepancies between the appellant and the tribunal members are such that there is no mutual intelligibility and the appellant can be processed without understanding what he has contributed to the processing of his own case and how he was processed.

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