Interview with Susan Francombe FCIArb

Susan Francombe FCIArb has worked in the construction industry for over 30 years. She is the first female chair of The Adjudication Society (appointed earlier this year), and is the first civil engineer to hold the post. She is a dual-qualified chartered civil engineer and registered barrister.   

My route into adjudication 

As the size of the projects I worked on increased, I realised I needed a better understanding of law and contract management. Someone suggested I study and sit the Institution of Civil Engineers examination. That fired my general interest in the law, and when I saw an advertisement for a college that allowed me to combine working on-site with weekend law lectures, I signed up. My specific interest in adjudication came from working for a well-known main contractor. We saw increasing numbers of sub-contractors using adjudication to resolve payment disputes, and I was drafted in to handle these. The Ciarb Accelerated Route then gave me the opportunity to become both a Fellow and gain a qualification in adjudication. 

How the dispute resolution sector can make the building and construction industry work better 

The dispute resolution sector can help in two ways. Firstly, by providing the most appropriate mechanisms to resolve any disputes that arise, letting the parties carry on with what they do best. Secondly, it can provide valuable lessons on preventing the same problems from occurring in future projects. For example, the King's College 2023: Construction Adjudication in the UK   report shows that in 42% of adjudications, inadequate contract administration is the leading cause. We need to show the industry the importance of contract administration to the success of their projects. 

How to improve awareness of the benefits of adjudication across the building and construction industry 

There are three things we can do. 

  • The first is to ensure that we are providing the right type of resources and information to all sectors of the industry. Many small and medium firms see adjudication as just another way of spending money on lawyers without realising lawyers are often unnecessary. They need to know how to get good quality advice to enable them to use adjudication as an effective dispute resolution tool. 
  • The second is promotion. I still find businesses who have never heard of adjudication or, if they have, do not think it is for them. Sharing information about other firms who have successfully used adjudication, particularly concerning payments, will increase awareness and an interest in finding out more. 
  • The final element is collaboration with industry bodies. This can help both spread knowledge of adjudication to their members and provide valuable feedback to adjudication practitioners on how the process is perceived and how it could be improved. 

So, that’s education, advocacy, and collaboration. 

We need to encourage more women to put themselves forward for panel membership 

The 2022 King’s College London and Adjudication Society Report showed that less than 8% of adjudicators are women. Those numbers have not been updated this year, but I expect that figure to increase slowly. The Adjudication Society launched the Adjudication Pledge and Women in Adjudication to encourage more women to qualify and apply for panels. We are now operating both a formal and ad hoc mentoring scheme (open to all members, not just women) so that those interested can find out what it is like to be an adjudicator. We have also published details of how to apply for panel membership with many of the Adjudicator Nominating Bodies (ANBs), something that was not always clear before. 

The importance of understanding developments across the dispute resolution sector 

If you want the best results, you use the most suitable tools for the job. That applies to dispute resolution as much as to construction. Recent developments, such as the push for mandatory mediation by the courts as well as the planned amendments to the UK Arbitration Act, will change the world of dispute resolution. Adjudication does not exist in a vacuum and must continue to fit in and complement the other methods. 

My most valuable skill Effective communication is the most valuable skill I have learned while building my career. I’ve been lucky to have had varied jobs in both the engineering and legal sectors. Seeing the industry from different perspectives has been invaluable in understanding and communicating with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Communicating clearly and effectively is an essential part of preventing disputes. 

My message as the first woman chair and civil engineer of the Adjudication Society 

My key message is to encourage transparency and diversity in the adjudication process. Transparency not only applies to the ANBs but also to adjudicators in relation to disclosure and conflicts of interest. Actions to improve diversity in relation to women have been put in place, but data and action are lacking with respect to other protected characteristics. But rather than just sticking to legal definitions, I think diversity incorporates the wide variety of experiences and backgrounds of those of us in the construction industry. We should all feel welcome and valued. 

Also of interest: 

Ciarb is committed to increasing the diversity of its panels and is a signatory to the Equal Representation in Adjudication Pledge. Parties can have confidence in Ciarb’s independent appointment process, which is designed to select the adjudicator best suited to the particular requirements and circumstances of the dispute. 

Find out more about how to apply to Ciarb's Adjudication Panel. 

Read more about our work in adjudication. 

If you want to develop your knowledge and skills in construction adjudication, look at our training courses.