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Lawyers back proposals for family justice 'observatory'

New research institute would represent 'a massive culture shift in family law,' says child law expert

2 September 2016

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Leading family law practitioners have voiced their support for researchers to explore the possibility of an 'observatory' that will improve the use of evidence in the family justice system.

A national call for evidence has been issued for 'Towards a Family Justice observatory': a project led by Lancaster University aimed at developing the generation, communication, and application of research in family cases.

Nigel Shepherd, chair of Resolution and head of family law at Mills & Reeve, backed the proposal: 'Anything which encourages coordination of research that can benefit families has to be welcomed. Resolution will be putting in a response to the call for evidence. We look forward to working on the project.'

Sarah Phillimore, a family law barrister at St John's Chambers, added: 'Lack of knowledge about relevant research or an imperfect understanding of it will inevitably have a detrimental impact on the quality of decision making in many family cases. I would therefore support any initiative that might improve this situation and I think it is urgently needed.'

Andrew Pack, care lawyer at Brighton and Hove City Council, and author of Suesspicious Minds law blog, said a new research institute represented 'a massive culture shift in family law'. 'It could be a very positive change - or it could be that the research papers get published and that nobody uses them. That will hinge on usefulness, credibility, and most of all independence - that users don't feel that the research paper began with an agenda for a particular answer.'

In 2011, the Family Justice Review highlighted deficiencies in the current research system and called for a 'coordinated and system wide approach to research and evaluation' supported by a dedicated research budget.

In 2015, the Nuffield Foundation sought to tackle the issues by setting out a preliminary case for a family justice 'observatory' that centred on the need for a new organisational structure.

In a document outlining the desire for a new infrastructure, the Nuffield Foundation posited the idea of an 'observatory' but suggested a consortium of organisations working together to ensure those involved in the system had greater access to research was more likely.

The current system was criticised for having a 'paucity of empirical research evidence' for policy-makers and practitioners while a 'lack of consensus' existed within the research community on how current evidence impacted policy and decision-making.

The existing framework was also condemned for failing to equip research users with training to source, interpret, or apply research evidence in particular cases, as well as addressing ethical and legal issues, especially in the courtroom.

The charitable trust said that the functions of a new 'observatory' would aim to improve the evidence-base, integrate and promote the use of evidence, and provide training for researchers to improve the rigour and relevance of research on the family justice system.

Teresa Wiliams, the Nuffield Foundation's director of social research and policy, said the time had come for access to relevant research in the family justice system to be improved.

'A family justice observatory - which has the support of the senior judiciary and Family Justice Board - is our way of addressing that problem by improving access to relevant research and assisting in its interpretation. In order to achieve this, we encourage all those working in the family justice system to respond to the call for evidence so that we can have confidence we understand all the relevant issues.'

Lancaster University, in partnership with the Alliance for Useful Evidence will lead the project and is welcoming evidence from practitioners, national and local policy makers, academics, and parties to cases such as parents and carers.

For further information about the study, please visit wp.lancs.ac.uk/observatory-scoping-study/. The closing date for submissions is Monday 31 October 2016.

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal @sportslawmatt matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk

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