What on Earth is a ‘family justice observatory’?

Family Law|April 13th 2016

Warning: jargon alert. (If you thought lawyers overindulged in jargon, try academics.)

Last week I came across a news article that informed me that the Nuffield Foundation had “appointed a team from Lancaster University and the Alliance for Useful Evidence to undertake a scoping study that will establish the purpose, functions, and delivery options for a family justice observatory.” Not having a clue what this meant, I read on. Unfortunately, I was then assaulted with such terms as ‘focus groups’, scoping of data sources, ‘cohort datasets’ and the ‘knowledge-to-action process’, with the result that I was none the wiser by the time I had finished reading the article.

Not allowing myself to be put off, I decided to delve a little deeper. I think I may now be a little better informed, if not exactly wiser.

The study referred to above is part of a project led by the Nuffield Foundation “to improve the generation and application of research in the family justice system.” OK, I think I’m still with it so far: better research means better decisions, both in individual family cases and with regard to reforms to the system. Or something like that. Apparently, we are told, “there is a broad consensus that a new infrastructure is needed to facilitate better use of research findings and administrative data within the family justice system”, and hence in October 2014 the Foundation set out what it saw as “the fundamental purpose and functions of the new infrastructure” in a briefing paper entitled Towards a family justice observatory to improve the generation and application of research.

Right, before I get to the briefing paper, a quick explanation of the use of the word ‘observatory’ for the benefit of those who, like me, thought it meant somewhere to look at the night sky. It seems that, in certain circles at least, it also has another meaning, which unfortunately the reader of the abovementioned article is expected to know (I did try looking up the word in my Oxford Dictionary, to see if there was another definition of which I was unaware, but there was not). So what is this other meaning? Well, as far as I can tell it is used in the sense of “an organisation that oversees something”. I think.

Moving on to the briefing paper – (and I’ll admit I’ve only read the executive summary – I couldn’t manage any more, whilst retaining what’s left of my sanity) – we are enlightened a little by being told that the observatory “might be a single institution or, more likely, a consortium of organisations that collectively ensure participants in the [family justice] system have appropriate access to reliable research”. OK, now we’re getting somewhere. The paper goes on to tell us that the observatory “would put in place mechanisms to generate more timely, relevant and robust research relevant to family justice; and also ensure that the findings are better disseminated, synthesised and applied.” Sounds good (although I’ve no idea how you go about ‘synthesising’ research – perhaps you mix it with some chemical. Or something.).

Right, that’s enough of the flippancy. There is, in fact, something important going on here, behind the jargon. As the briefing paper explains, medical, scientific, and social scientific research can play a vital role in supporting an effective family justice system. It can improve decisions about individual children and families and has an important role to play in wider policy and legislation governing family law, policy and practice.

Now, I certainly do not have the knowledge to comment upon this, but the briefing paper tells us that there are a number of deficiencies in the way in which research evidence is obtained and used in the family justice system. For example, it says, there is a paucity of empirical research evidence for policy-makers and practitioners, and that “even where such evidence exists, it does not always reach the courts or other practitioners in a usable format.” “In addition,” it goes on, “there is a lack of consensus within the research community on what the evidence has to say about key issues, and importantly, what the implications are for practice and decision-making.”

Further to this, the paper says, the research user is “not consistently or systematically trained in how to source, interpret or apply research evidence in particular cases.” And then there is the ethical point with which all family lawyers will be familiar: “The realities of an adversarial system, in which the stakes are high, mean there can be strong incentives for practitioners to use research selectively to support an existing position (e.g. social work), or to suit a client’s case (e.g. legal practitioners).”

Hence the need for an observatory, which would have four main functions:

  1. Improving the evidence-base, for example by working with family justice system users to identify priority research gaps.
  2. “Synthesising [that word again] and integrating the evidence: by undertaking or commissioning systematic reviews on priority themes and topics, and [yes] communicating in an accessible way.”

3.“Promoting the use of evidence: by providing access to bespoke advice on the appropriate interpretation of evidence in specific circumstances as well as on adopting and testing wider approaches.” (I’m not entirely sure I follow this one).

  1. “Capacity building: by providing training and development activities for researchers and practitioners to help improve the rigour and relevance of research on the family justice system, and to promote its use.”

Slipping into jargon (not to mention hyperbole) the executive summary of the briefing paper concludes with the following:

“A more overarching ambition is that the observatory should be a catalyst for a virtuous spiral in which a more systematic approach to the generation and application of research evidence and administrative data fosters greater demand for, and engagement with, research evidence among those operating and using the family justice system.”

I’ll say nothing more, save that no doubt we will be hearing a lot more about the observatory, once the study has been completed.

The full briefing paper can be found here.

Author: Stowe Family Law


  1. Andrew says:

    This report will be reaching MoJ and must therefore be written in a language MoJ understands.
    And for some years now MoJ has been working in a language which is not English. It uses a lot of English words, and the syntax is mainly English, so it has a superficial resemblance to the language of Shakespeare and Dryden, of Milton and the Authorised Version; but it’s not English. It’s called Bollocks, and we are all going to have to become fluent in it. There will soon be a book in the well-known series called Teach Yourself Bollocks and you’d better get a copy as soon as possible.

  2. Alice T says:

    True about the jargon. But isn’t number 2 what NICE already do through their SCIE and RiP partners in already since the statutory remit of NICE was extended from health to include social care?

    • Stitchedup says:

      Has somebody passed away?

    • JamesB says:

      Alice, oh I wish that you had that dry sense of humour, and your comment was brilliant irony. Unfortunately I do tend to agree with Andrew that it was bollocks. You should have explained and use less jargon what scie and rip is. Would be interested if you do, then again perhaps that ship has sailed and your window of opportunity is closed and the rest of the people DTC’s will have to go to the FLK org for a solution.

  3. Andrew says:

    Alice – you obviously have a pass at A-level in Higher-grade Bollocks!

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