Law in Society

We are interested in how law functions in society, and in law as a social institution.

We currently have four substantive areas of interest: family justice; administrative justice; mental disability and other vulnerabilities; and wider legal system design. Prior to 2014, family justice projects were considered under our children and families programme. We will consider several different types of project.

Family justice

We are interested in legal policy issues such as co-habitation, divorce and separation and child contact; the operation of family courts in both public and private law cases; the use of other mechanisms to promote outcomes appropriate to promote child welfare; and international family law.

We are particularly interested in the following issues and questions:

  • Pathways of cases - information about flows through the public and private law systems, including: factors affecting the overall duration of cases; what happens prior to formal proceedings (e.g. with local authorities in the case of care proceedings, and access to mediation or counselling in private law cases); triggers for cases returning to court; movement of cases between the public and private law systems; and cases involving parties other than the parents.
  • Outcomes – to what extent does what is agreed in Court actually happen, what are the circumstances which require decisions to be revisited, and how does this relate to longer term outcomes? How effective are court mechanisms for enforcing outcomes?
  • Transparency and accountability – balancing the potential benefits of openness of the family courts (including media access and reporting of cases) with the need for personal privacy, especially for vulnerable families.
  • Use of experts – how expert evidence is commissioned and used, the role of experts in taking and interpreting evidence from vulnerable children, and the contribution expert evidence makes to decision-making.
  • Interventions – the effectiveness of interventions designed to identify or address some of the underlying issues presenting in the family courts (e.g. repeat removals, drug and alcohol problems). See also our wider work on children and families.
Administrative justice

Administrative justice relates to the law, procedures, and systems that individual members of society can use to challenge decisions, typically made by state institutions, which regulate their lives. The administrative justice system is a key mechanism for individuals to hold the state to account, and as such is important to the overall legitimacy and accountability of the wider justice system. Our work in this area is not on public administration in itself, but on how dispute resolution may be improved. In particular, we are interested in:

  • The operation of different administrative justice mechanisms (including different tribunals, ombudsmen and mediation). This includes  how they work, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what principles might guide policy-makers when choosing between them.
  • Incentives and structures for encouraging good early decision-making that could avoid disputes which may later require resolution in court, but which also enable ordinary people to take appropriate legal action where needed. This may require an empirical examination of the types of cases which are successful at different stages of the system – especially at appeal - to see if certain types of issue are coming up repetitively, and the options for improving feedback to initial decision-makers.
  • This will require an improved understanding of system users, and what may deter them from taking justifiable cases or incentivise them to take spurious or weak cases, including the role that costs and access to advice may make. 
  • Access to justice- and what happens to those who do not have access to the formal legal system or legal advice, including non-court mechanisms for dispute resolution, and the role of non-legally qualified intermediaries.
  • Enforcement and outcomes- looking at whether what is determined by a tribunal, ombudsman or other mechanism actually gets implemented; whether it is possible to improve feedback mechanisms on this; and the institutional options improving enforcement.
Mental disability and other vulnerabilities

We are interested in empirical and evaluative work on the accessibility of the legal system for users (witnesses, as well as parties to a case) who may be vulnerable, including but not confined to those with mental disabilities. This could include the workings of specific courts and tribunals (such as the mental health tribunal, the SENDIST Tribunal and the Court of Protection), as well as special adjustments made by other part of the system which may deal with vulnerable individuals.

We are also interested in comparative work to understand whether and how vulnerability and mental disability may be interpreted differently depending on the setting, and the implications for justice outcomes.  

Wider legal system design

We are  interested in wider questions about how empirical research and analysis may inform the design and operation of the justice system. For example:

  • How are flows into the formal (civil, family and administrative) justice system changing in terms of types of case or the characteristics or users of the system? What are the key drivers? What are the appropriate institutional responses – for example in terms of case-listing and triage, judicial case management and training?
  • Are there systematic barriers and opportunities which affect who gets access to justice, or how vulnerable parties in the justice system are protected?  
  • What happens to people who do not have access to the system, or to legal advice – especially where funding is a barrier. How can the system best respond?
  • How can Courts and tribunals make better use of technology and administrative data to manage their caseload, identify emerging patterns and issues, and improve outcomes? Do/could listing practices provide opportunities for natural experiments?
  • What are the best ways of collecting and considering evidence – including from expert witnesses - to be considered by Courts & tribunals?  

Human rights

We fund a limited number of projects in human rights, with particular interest in those seeking to investigate the structures for human rights adjudication in Europe and elsewhere, or that address issues such as the margin of appreciation (which informs judgments by the European Court of Human Rights about the dividing line between a member state contravening the Convention or interpreting it differently in the context of national legal frameworks).

Criminal justice

In exceptional cases we fund work on criminal justice issues, usually where they relate to one of the above themes, or link to one of the Foundation’s other programmes. We do not fund projects on criminal law.

Types of project

To be considered, projects must help set an agenda in the short or medium term, or have the potential to lead to policy or institutional change. They may draw on a range of research and development approaches. In particular, we are interested in:

  • Projects which aim to build capacity in the generation or use of empirical evidence in law. These might include projects to improve capability and capacity to undertake empirical work on socio-legal issues; as well as projects designed to improve the application or implementation of evidence into practice at the institutional (rather than individual) level.
  • How the existing data infrastructure in civil and administrative justice can be better exploited and exploration of the gaps which need to be further developed. Key data sets in this area include surveys such as the Civil & Social Justice Survey, MoJ casefiles and administrative statistics, and Cafcass data on family law cases.

We do NOT fund:

  • Doctrinal or jurisprudential analysis
  • Delivery of core or local legal services including law centres.
Emerging themes

In addition to our existing funding priorities, we are calling for applications that examine:

  • Significant structural shifts in British society – demography, social geography, family structures, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, mental health, disability and other vulnerability.
  • The impact of technology on social and economic outcomes, on skills necessary for the modern labour market, and on the wider issue of social relationships and personal identity in a data-driven economy and digital culture.
  • The relationship between trust in data, evidence and institutional authority, and popular values and beliefs.
  • The balance between the protection of individuals and personal responsibility in fostering individual and collective well-being in civic society.
  • Inequalities within and between different generations.
Interested in applying?

For information about submitting an application see our how to apply page.