What is the problem?

Many of us in the family justice system have been saying for a long time that there is an urgent need for better dissemination of research about important issues which guide judicial decision making about children and their futures.

I recall McFarlane LJ’s rather terrifying analogy that Judges are like dart players who are taught to simply fling the darts over their shoulders, not even sure if they have hit the wall, let alone the dart board or even the bullseye. Family lawyers get very little information about outcomes and without knowledge and understanding of current research and the actual evidence to support good practice, there is a real risk that ‘ assumptions’ harden into unevidenced dogma which is simply trotted out in every case, to the detriment of the individual child before us.

The national Family Justice Review (2011) set the ball rolling, highlighting deficits in research generation, communication and application. In 2015, the Nuffield Foundation considered the case for a family justice ‘observatory’ as these difficulties were long standing and needed tackling by a new organisational structure. The Foundation considered a variety of ways that social science/child welfare research evidence could complement legal knowledge.

In 2016 the Foundation appointed a team to undertake a detailed scoping study to look at the feasibility of establishing a new observatory and what its role could be. The study ‘Towards a Family Justice Observatory’ is led by Professor Karen Broadhurst and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, in partnership with The Alliance for Useful Evidence, the Centre for Child and Family Research, Research in Practice, UCL, The Family Rights Group and CoramBAAF.

The work of the Family Justice Observatory Study

A call for evidence was launched in August 2016 inviting written responses from a number of organisations about how they used and accessed research and what they thought should be the priorities for the observatory. Between May and July 2017 the study carried out interviews with ‘senior leaders’ in the field to better consider how to shape the structure and priorities of an observatory.

In August 2017 the Family Justice Observatory Study published its first newsletter, setting out the work it has done to date and the work it still needs to do.

Two key findings reports have recently been published; first, the findings from a national consultation with stakeholders (including The Transparency Project). Secondly, ‘Using Population Level Data to Understand the Family Justice System’ which was a report on the key messages from a knowledge exchange event, to examine the potential for such data to be used to produce an evidence base to support services for families who come into contact with family courts.

What were the key findings of the national consultation?

Those responding were clear that frontline practitioners in both public and private law should have a basic grasp of the latest child welfare research. Robust decisions about children were achieved through application of an interdisciplinary body of knowledge. However, if an expert wasn’t instructed by the court, how could frontline professionals introduce knowledge outside their own professional competencies? Degrees of ‘research literacy’ differed – legal professionals demonstrating the least!

The findings also demonstrated major barriers to accessing up to date research such as limited time/resources, particularly for lawyers who had to keep on top of developing case law. Research is not always published as ‘open access’ or in accessible formats.

The key priority for all consulted was the creation of a ‘one stop shop’ that ‘radically changed both access to, and confidence in research evidence’. Also, closer engagement in setting research priorities would make research not only more relevant but improve understanding.

Based on the responses to the first consultation, the aims of the observatory were identified as follows:

  • to improve the evidence base for family justice policy and practice through better use of large-scale datasets:
  • to commission authoritative knowledge reviews and make these highly accessible;
  • to host events and conferences to improve dissemination of research findings
  • to support better use of regional data to enable variability/best practice to be defined.

Further work

The project will continue by examining the key findings, following an international call for evidence about use of research in family justice systems; a summary will be available in October 2017.  Key findings of a scoping review of population-level data in the family justice system will also be published in October 2017, along side a report of findings from a local area data case study.

The final dissemination of the study where key findings will be presented, will take place on 31st January 2018 at the Nuffield Foundation.

I very much hope that 2018 will be the year that we finally see the observatory taking shape. The consequences of decisions in the family justice system are often life long. It isn’t a game of darts that judges are playing – they need to be making decisions for children that are based on the best understanding of the best evidence we can get.

Feature pic : Target courtesy of Pelle Sten on flickr (creative commons – thanks)