Charity to launch £5m family justice research centre

By Tristan Donovan

| 27 April 2018

A research hub that will seek to improve practice across the family justice system is to launch next year.

The observatory will share evidence about child welfare and other topics relevant to professionals involved with the family justice system. Illustration: Ben Tallon

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, which is backed with £5m from the Nuffield Foundation charity, is expected to open in spring 2019.

The observatory will gather, summarise and share evidence about child welfare and other topics relevant to professionals involved with the family justice system in England and Wales.

"Research evidence and administrative data have great potential to support decision-making in family justice, but as the Family Justice Review identified in 2011, this is an underused resource," said Nuffield Foundation trustee Sir Ernest Ryder.

"The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory will address this unfulfilled potential. Its aim is to support the use of data and research evidence in the family justice system in England and Wales."

The observatory's establishment comes at a time when the family justice system is under severe pressure following years of rising care applications from local authorities. In 2017/18 the courts received 14,204 public law care applications - more than twice as many as in 2008/09.

Plans for the observatory include bringing data about the family justice system into one place and turning research into guidance that those working in the field can apply in their work. The observatory will also establish regional satellites to help it engage with practitioners better.

The decision to create the observatory follows a study that explored how social workers, judges, lawyers and other professionals use research. 

The study found professional understanding of research evidence was uneven and that many were basing their decisions on outdated studies. Researchers also found practitioners often avoid citing research in court proceedings due to fear of cross-examination or misinterpreting the findings.

Those working in family justice said their access to research is often blocked by paywalls and that studies were often not translated into tools or guidance of practical use to them.

The work to develop the observatory is being led by Professor Karen Broadhurst of Lancaster University. The observatory's six-person development team also includes Susannah Bowyer, research director of Research in Practice and Carey Oppenheim, the former chief executive of the Early Intervention Foundation.

The observatory's announcement comes amid a period of change for the family courts, with Sir Andrew McFarlane set to take over from Sir James Munby as president of the Family Division later this year.

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