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Events, Research

Report from the annual Socio-Legal Studies Association conference, and a call for a new description of administrative justice


Margaret Doyle, Senior Research Officer, UKAJI

At the SLSA conference at Warwick University at the beginning of April we saw some grim statistics presented in the Administrative Justice stream.

Robert Thomas from Manchester University exposed some of the myths about numbers of judicial reviews in immigration and asylum cases. ‘Success’ rates at final hearing disguise the fact that one-third of cases are conceded by the Home Office before getting to hearing. The increase in judicial reviews reflects not only poor decision-making and delay – issues often conceded once the Treasury solicitor becomes involved – but also the recent removal of appeal rights for several categories of claim.

Dave Cowan from Bristol University presented data from more than 20 years of research that he and colleagues (Simon Halliday, Caroline Hunter and Abi Dymond) have conducted on homelessness internal reviews – a process designed to be non-technical and informal but actually rarely requested. Of the more than 50,000 unsuccessful homelessness applications each year, only a small proportion lead to requests for review.

Both pieces of research illustrate the tenuous relationship between policy and evidence. Evidence can be misrepresented, as in assertions of the rise of unsuccessful judicial review claims – or non-existent, as in the fact that no government statistics exist on numbers or outcomes of homelessness internal reviews.

In the morning sessions we also heard from several PhD students doing exciting work in administrative justice:

  • Sally Richards, University of New South Wales, Australia, presented her research on bureaucratic legal consciousness. Positioned within legal consciousness studies, it asks how government officials identify with law and how these legal identification narratives play out at the coalface of meaningful administrative decision-making.
  • Christopher Sargeant, University of Cambridge, presented his work on the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, part of his wider research on assessing accountability mechanisms for deaths in custody. Sargeant suggests that the Ombudsman performs poorly against three key purposes of accountability – public oversight, abuse of power and learning – but performs well against the catharsis purpose.
  • Chris Gill, who is completing PhD research in the School of Law at the University of Glasgow exploring the influence of courts, tribunals and ombudsmen on decisions taken about the rights and entitlements of children, presented work he is carrying out with colleague Carolyn Hirst on behalf of Queen Margaret University, where both are lecturers with the Consumer Insight Centre. They have been commissioned by an ombudsman scheme to look at the role of a consumer ombudsman within the UK ombudsman landscape.

Developing research capacity and encouraging early-career researchers is one of the aims of UKAJI, and we look forward to hearing more from these PhD students and other researchers who are making valuable new contributions to enliven the field.

In the afternoon session we had some expressions of despair that administrative justice has fallen out of favour, after a relative heyday of activity and energy when the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC) was set up, following the Tribunals White Paper of 2004. Mike Adler, University of Edinburgh, and other attendees discussed concerns that research is having limited impact in light of the significant damage done to access to justice in the past five years. Particular areas of concern mentioned were mental health decision making and mandatory reconsideration of benefits decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions. Is there a problem with how research is communicated more widely? Attendees discussed the lack of respect for research among ombudsmen and the need for a resource to link academic experts with media sources to encourage wider circulation of research evidence.

This is where UKAJI hope to makes a difference, by highlighting the value of research in policy-making and helping to establish a research agenda that reflects key research questions identified by policy makers, practitioners, and researchers.

UKAJI also aims to expand the understanding of the relevance of administrative justice. Often seen as a niche specialist area (referred to as the Cinderella of the justice field), administrative justice is in fact concerned with themes that resonate in many disciplines and in everyday life – fairness, efficiency, legislation and government, public services, the role of the state, complaints. Every interaction between individuals and the state is potentially an area of interest in administrative justice. What excited me, as an SLSA conference virgin, was how much research on administrative justice goes on in other streams. I attended an afternoon session on Mental Health Law and was impressed by the three presentations on compulsory treatment of people with psychosocial disabilities. Those attending this session didn’t speak in terms of ‘administrative justice’, but the themes and issues with which they are concerned are all, in effect, matters of administrative justice.

Perhaps what we need is a new term. UKAJI has a few proposals:

  • “The interaction between citizen and state, from rule-making to decision-making to challenge to resolution.”
  • “Decision-making by public bodies.”
  • “Citizen-versus-state conflicts.”
  • “Administrative justice includes initial decision making, dispute resolution, and feedback processes related to the interaction between citizen and state.”
  • “The means by which good administration is ensured for citizens.”
  • “The idea that citizens should be treated fairly by those in power and the processes that make this aspiration a reality.”

Let us know your ideas – how would you describe administrative justice?


2 thoughts on “Report from the annual Socio-Legal Studies Association conference, and a call for a new description of administrative justice

  1. Hi Margaret,

    Your comments box does not seem to be working properly, so here are my suggestions:

    Fairplay for citizens Serving citizens fairly Service, fairness and redress – putting the needs of citizens first

    AJ it seems to me should not be just about justice. It should occupy the territory where effective service and fair redress intersect. So getting decisions right first time, responding to and learning from error, respecting citizens (some of whom will have high dependency needs) and providing timely and effective reconsideration and redress should all be the subject of study and reform, perceived as part of the same balanced scorecard and not as something owned by any one department of government. It follows that the study of opportunities for improvement will often best take place on an interdisciplinary basis. More ambitiously there is a good case for applying the same principles in any case where there is an imbalance of power between individuals and large, service orientated organizations, such as insurance companies, banks and internet providers. Regards,


    Posted by Bernard Quoroll | May 1, 2015, 11:39 am
    • Thanks for your suggestions and thoughts, Bernard. I’m sorry the comments facility doesn’t seem to be working, but hopefully your comment is now published.

      Posted by UKAJI | May 19, 2015, 2:32 pm

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