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Towards a Family Justice Observatory: messages from initial consultation with stakeholders (England and Wales)

Date:31 JUL 2017
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Professor Karen Broadhurst, Dr. Laura Robertson, Ms Claire Mason
Centre for Child and Family Justice Research, Lancaster University
Dr. Susannah Bowyer and Julie Wilkinson
Research in Practice

Family Justice Reformed (second edition: June 2017) contains detailed commentary on the Single Family Court and the Children and Families Act 2014, Pts 1 and 2 (which deal with family justice), including clear and comprehensive guidance on the underlying procedural regime and the rationale for the reforms.

Many readers will now be familiar with the Nuffield Foundation’s plans for a new national family justice observatory (England and Wales). We introduced readers to this initiative in September 2016 (see ‘Towards a Family Justice Observatory:call for evidence’ [2016] Fam Law 1184) when Family Law kindly supported our call for evidence. We referred readers to a background document written by Bryan Rodgers, Liz Trinder and Teresa Williams that set out the preliminary case for a new observatory and outlined limitations in both the supply and application of robust research evidence in the family justice system. Although family court decisions are clearly influenced by developments in case law, there is increasing concern that the broader social science research is having insufficient influence on policy and practice (when we refer to the broader social science research evidence, we typically refer to non-legal knowledge and in particular research concerning children and families that is relevant to both public and private law cases). 

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The scoping study set out to explore these claims from the perspective of frontline professionals, policy makers and organisations representing parties to cases.  

In our article for the forthcoming September issue of Family Law we provide a short summary of the main findings from our first consultation with stakeholders in England and Wales. In order to engage with a wide range of participants (social workers, lawyers, barristers, magistrates, judges and experts), we combined face-to-face data collection with an invitation to organisational leads to produce written responses to a call for evidence. We also responded positively to requests for interview, where individuals could not participate in focus groups. The objectives of the consultation were as follows: 

  1. To better understand the knowledge-to-action process for stakeholders in the family justice system.

  2. To gain a clearer understanding of evidence gaps and priorities for new research.

  3. To ask stakeholders to prioritise a range of potential functions for the observatory.

  4. To ask stakeholders to prioritise target audiences.

The range of questions posed in both the call for evidence and in focus groups was kept deliberately broad, given the dearth of published work on research use and application in the family justice system: We received 47 submissions to the national call for evidence, and where permissions have been granted, these have been published on the project website. In addition, we were able to complete 14 regional focus groups with frontline practitioners (n = 49), two focus groups with children and young people and their families and four focus groups at the Judicial College (n = 36) (September 2016 – February 2017) (the profile of participants joining the professionals’ focus groups is available in the full report). 

Analysis of submissions to the call for evidence and the focus group data found a high level of consensus among participants about barriers to accessing and applying research, as well as priorities for the new observatory. In our forthcoming article we set out in brief our main observations. If readers wish to read the consultation report in full, it can be accessed via the project website hosted at Lancaster University as well as the project website at the Nuffield Foundation

A full version of this article will appear in the September 2017 issue of Family Law.