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Achieving accessible justice through effective participation in courts and tribunals

By Nuffield Foundation

A new framework to support participation by lay people in court and tribunal hearings, based on the findings of a unique cross-jurisdictional study has been developed by a Nuffield-funded team at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London.

The research findings and framework, published today in a new book, ‘Participation in Courts and Tribunals: Concepts, Realities and Aspirations’, addresses what exactly it means to participate in judicial proceedings, why participation matters, and what factors impede, and conversely, support participation.

Author Jessica Jacobson, Director of the ICPR and Professor of Criminal Justice, commented:

“Although it is a long-established principle in English law that people should be able to participate effectively in the court and tribunal proceedings that directly concern them, the concept of participation is poorly defined in law and under-explored in legal research and analysis.

“Traditional hearings, with their complex language and processes, can be marginalizing and disempowering for court users. The framework we have developed highlights ten points of participation and aims to guide and inform future policy, practice and research.

“Our research points to the urgent need for greater understanding of effective participation. We note the vital importance of international cross-jurisdictional information-sharing about supporting court user participation, exploring court users’ perspectives on what it means to participate, and researching new, creative approaches to court hearings.”

Rob Street, Director of Justice at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“Ensuring people can participate meaningfully in the justice system has become increasingly important over the past decade with court modernisation initiatives, cuts to legal aid, and an increase in litigants without legal representation. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated moves towards remote justice. In this period of change, we warmly welcome this new study which, through its careful consideration of what effective participation in justice really means, has the potential to improve people’s access to and experiences of the justice system.”

Co-author, Penny Cooper, Visiting Professor at the ICPR, added:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the existing trend towards the replacement of physical with virtual court attendance and has therefore heightened the need to consider what ‘participation’ means and what can be done to ensure it is genuinely effective for all court users. This is because remote hearings, if poorly configured, can provide further barriers to participating, such as connectivity issues and understanding what is going on and being understood over video or telephone.”

The research study combined a review of national and international policy with empirical research involving interviews with justice practitioners and observations of proceedings in the criminal courts, family courts and employment and immigration and asylum tribunals.‘Participation in Courts and Tribunals: Concepts, Realities and Aspirations’ is now available in hardback with 20% discount, and free of charge as an Open Access e-book from Bristol University Press.

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.

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