Building the infrastructure for a fair, accessible justice system

New JUSTICE-led project, funded by the Access to Justice Foundation, to explore options for harnessing data and evidence to improve justice policy and practice.

JUSTICE have commissioned Dr Natalie Byrom to identify options for a new initiative to enable policymakers and practitioners to harness data and evidence to build a fairer justice system within everyone’s reach. In this blog, Dr Byrom explains why this work is so important, and what the scoping study will cover.

Context and current gaps

Justice systems across the UK are in crisis. Court backlogs leave people waiting years to access justice whilst “advice deserts” place access to legal information and support beyond the reach of many. Those most in need have been worst impacted – victims of rape and other serious sexual offences are waiting longer than ever for their cases to reach trial.  People eligible for legal aid now have to travel further than ten years ago to access the advice and representation they are entitled to. Charities providing access to legal advice have been forced to close or reduce their services – analysis prepared by the Community Justice Fund predicted that 2022-23 funding deficits would leave 36,800 people without access to specialist legal advice. The cost of living crisis has resulted in more people experiencing legal problems including domestic abuse, eviction and debt – compounding pressure on already overstretched services.

Three months into an election year, political parties are preparing to take their proposals for tackling this crisis to the electorate, with both parties looking for efficient and cost-effective solutions. However, as the Institute for Government recently highlighted, policymakers in charge of the justice system lack access to the data and evidence needed to understand whether their proposals actually work, and consequently whether public money is well spent. In this regard, justice lags far behind other areas of social policy – including health, welfare and education – despite the fact that issues in the justice system have serious knock-on effects across all these areas.

Recent years have seen some initiatives that show promise in making better use of the data that does exist. The research council funded Ministry of Justice Data First Programme has made significant progress in anonymising and linking datasets held by the criminal, family and civil courts and making these available to accredited researchers. The Better Outcomes through Linked Data (“BOLD”) initiative aims to link justice system data with data held by other government departments to generate findings on effective approaches to tackling issues including reoffending and substance misuse.

However, these data linking initiatives fail to address issues with the data collection practices of justice system agencies – issues which have led to profound and extensive gaps in the information available to improve the system from the perspective of users. Most administrative systems used by justice system agencies are structured around cases, not people, making it difficult to understand who uses justice systems and services, their journeys and outcomes. This undermines the ability of policymakers to understand what works, for who and under what circumstances.

Those delivering advice are similarly impacted by historic under-investment in the systems and tools needed to understand demand or measure the quality and impact of their services. Data linking initiatives, such as the DataFirst Programme, the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and the BOLD initiative, are designed primarily around the needs of researchers, government analysts and policymakers. New approaches and models are needed to enable those who design and deliver legal advice in communities to access data and evidence to inform their work.

Just as crucially, the data held by justice system agencies can only tell us so much about people’s experience of trying to understand and secure their legal rights – successive legal needs surveys show that most people’s justice journeys in civil, administrative and family law end before they ever reach court. In the context of increasing interest in private dispute resolution services as a mechanism for reducing demand on the courts, accessing data on people’s pre-court experience is vital to ensure that such solutions promote fair outcomes.

One consequence of this lack of data is that the justice system, particularly in areas of civil and administrative law, fails to benefit from the broad networks of think-tanks, researchers and evidence intermediaries that promote effective decision making and service design in other areas of social policy. For example, the justice sector has no equivalent to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, who play a vital role in ensuring that initiatives proposed in healthcare meet rigorous evidence standards and uphold patient safety. 

As all political parties and the Senior Judiciary look to the role that technology might play in addressing issues at lower cost, the absence of initiatives analogous to the National Institute for Healthcare Research’s Health Technology Assessment Programme, and the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency who research, define and uphold quality standards) is particularly problematic. The House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee described the status quo as a: “new Wild West” characterised by: “dubious selling practices and claims made by vendors as to their products’ effectiveness which are often untested and unproven”. Robust, proportionate and evidence-based regulation, alongside parity of access to data is vital to support innovation and ensure that technology delivers on its promise to increase access to justice for all.

Scoping a solution

Putting in place the data and evidence infrastructure to support a fair, accessible justice system is an urgent task. To begin this process, Justice have commissioned Dr Natalie Byrom to lead a scoping study, funded by the Access to Justice Foundation which will take place over the next few months. As part of this study, Dr Byrom will:

  • Conduct a review of national and international practice to identify promising models, learning from a range of initiatives including the JRF Insight Infrastructure, the Georgetown University Civil Justice Data Commons, and the Stanford Legal Design Lab;
  • Interview stakeholders from civil society, policy and government to understand their perspectives. What are the key gaps? What functions are most needed?
  • Propose models for an initiative that would meet the needs of key stakeholders;
  • Identify potential funders and work with them to understand their appetite to support the creation of a new initiative.
Fiona Rutherford, Chief Executive of JUSTICE, says:

“A fair, well-functioning justice system is a necessary foundation for thriving societies, strong democracies, and robust economies. But rather than serving as a stable bedrock enabling us all to live together and flourish, widening cracks across our justice system are ruining lives and harming public trust and efficiency. Better data and evidence-gathering are key first steps towards turning this situation around.

“Over JUSTICE’s history, the organisation has transformed the legal landscape for the better, led by evidence, expertise, and a focus on practical solutions. Having developed and guided transformational change before, we know it can be done. And, as the only non-governmental organisation whose work spans the whole UK justice system, we are uniquely placed to begin building the data and evidence infrastructure the sector so badly needs.

We are therefore very pleased to have commissioned Dr Byrom to do this work on JUSTICE’s behalf, with the important support of the Access to Justice Foundation.”

Clare Carter, Chief Executive of the Access to Justice Foundation, says:  

The Access to Justice Foundation exists to improve access to legal advice and representation. The development of a more robust data and evidence infrastructure is essential to our work for two reasons. Firstly, we and other funders have a responsibility to utilise charitable funds in the most effective way, so clarity on what good looks like at the frontline is essential. Secondly, as a fundraising foundation committed to making the case for increased resourcing into justice, we rely heavily on existing data and evidence, and recognise that there are gaps. We are delighted to be able to fund and support this crucial initiative.”

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