A report just published highlights new findings about research and evidence use in family courts.

The Nuffield Foundation, along with several universities, research organisations and adoption and fostering academy CORAM BAAF, created “Towards a National Family Justice Observatory”, a scoping study which aims to identify what role the latest evidence and research can play in child welfare proceedings.

The study includes a consultation, which took place in September 2016 and which Researching Reform completed – you can see our answers here. It is this consultation which forms the basis of the recently publicised report.

Who Took Part

The consultation wanted to understand the research evidence needs of stakeholders and
opportunities and barriers to the application of research evidence in policy and practice.

The findings were interesting. At a healthy 64 pages, we haven’t had a chance to comb through the whole report yet (you’ll need at least 30 tea bags and two packets of Digestives), but we have managed to read a significant portion.

Key highlights:

  • All those consulted agreed that a ‘One Stop Shop’ with up to the minute research and evidence was a priority
  • A need to ensure that research looked at the long term effects of policies and decisions was vital
  • The majority consulted agreed that a basic knowledge of the latest child welfare research for those working on public and private law children cases was essential
  • Across all stakeholders there was concern about the impartiality of research and evidence in general
  • There was confusion as to how to introduce research and evidence at court level
  • Legal professionals demonstrated the lowest levels of research literacy
  • Some social workers preferred to produce reports based solely on their observations, rather than refer to or include relevant research materials
  • Time, resources and lack of access were all noted as bars to accessing up to date research
  • Research and evidence needed to be produced in clear, accessible formats with key messages featured in each body of work
  • There is a need for guidance materials which aid decision making in front line practice
  • Concerns were raised about litigants in person not having access to the relevant information within research materials
  • Frontline practitioners such as social workers felt the family courts were ambivalent about child welfare and social science research
  • Conflicting and contradictory research also posed problems, leaving the court with no time to debate the substance of the findings and creating confusion as to which body of research to apply in a case
  • Judges consulted felt that the reputation and expertise of researchers was fundamental to the credibility of the research before the court
  • A pilot phase of 2-3 years is needed to establish quality standards for research evidence, and mechanisms for sharing information across the family justice system.

The report also tells us that based on stakeholders’ priorities, a new observatory would need to:

  • Improve the evidence base for family justice policy and practice through better use of large scale datasets;
  • Commission authoritative knowledge reviews and make these highly accessible;
  • Host events and conferences to improve dissemination of research findings;
  • Support better use of regional data to enable variability/best practice to be identified.

The top 4 research topics listed by those consulted were:

  • Longer-term outcomes of family justice system involvement for children and families;
  • Impact of family justice reforms – policy and legislation;
  • Robust evaluation of interventions/innovation;
  • Research on the assessment of risk.

More importantly, the consultation process asked young people how they felt about the family justice system and what they wanted from it.

Every single child who took part, said they wanted the option to be able to speak to their judge directly.

Young People's Answers (1).png

Those who took part in the Focus Group listed the following as important to them:

  • Help in understanding their case and family justice processes
  • Social workers, Cafcass guardians and judges need to explain to children and young people how the family justice system works and what the process will be
  • Child friendly information on the family justice system should be available for children and young people
  • Social workers, Cafcass guardians and judges should be given all the information they need to understand individual cases

They also felt it was vital that judges understood the long term impact of child welfare judgments and orders, as well as an emphasis on training for both judges and social work professionals to better understand how to communicate with children and provide them with emotional support. Young people also suggested child welfare professionals should have a working knowledge of cultural and topical issues.

Very much worth a read if you have the time.