On 6 December 2017, at the University of Essex in Colchester, we celebrated the work of UKAJI’s phase 1 and presented a summary of our research roadmap, which sets out the challenges, opportunities and priorities for research in administrative justice over the next five years. We were joined by a range of the stakeholders who make up the UKAJI community – academic researchers, policymakers, the judiciary, and the advice sector. Below are a brief summary of the issues raised and a link to the Summary report. The final Research Roadmap will be published in the New Year.
Welcome, and the background to UKAJI
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, chairing the opening panel, described how the project’s Advisory Board, which she has led, watched the development of the project, from starting off three years ago with ‘How do we do this?’, then exploring and gradually trying it out, experimenting, and consulting on and producing the roadmap. She noted that what has also been produced is a community – a network that will carry on beyond this first phase of UKAJI and that is something of which the team, and community, should be enormously proud.
Karen Hulme, Head of Essex Law School, highlighted the long history of public law and research expertise within the law school, which brings impressive partners to the university. The UKAJI roadmap, she said, shows just how far the reach of administrative justice is. Looking into the future, the roadmap is timely, exploring issues such as ‘AI judges’, and illustrates what a rich, interesting area administrative justice is for research over the next few years.
Noting that administrative justice has been well supported by the Law School at Essex, Maurice Sunkin, who has led the UKAJI project, thanked all those who have contributed to the work of UKAJI since its establishment in 2014, including the Nuffield Foundation, the Essex Law School, the members of the Core and Wider Core teams, our Advisory Board, and many others from across the UK. From the creation of the institute’s name, logo and website (creatively designed by original core team member Andrew Le Sueur, now Executive Dean for Humanities at Essex), the network has developed organically through both virtual and in-person engagement.
Maurice explained that part of UKAJI’s mission has been to describe the scope and reach of administrative justice, which starts with decisions made by government that affect us. Administrative justice is not a single system but a series of systems, a mosaic, and it is the fundamental point at which law touches people’s lives. As a term, ‘administrative justice’ is too broad and perhaps fails to convey the disparate areas and the opportunities for comparing and learning that are offered by this field of research. Nonetheless, the quality of research in this area is crucial, as it affects people’s trust in the processes and systems that should provide administrative justice.
The Summary report is available here.
Joe Tomlinson, of the University of Sheffield, described the ways that UKAJI has helped him in his work and noted how it has provided a focal point for the administrative justice community. It supported the establishment of an Early Career Researcher Network, and a workshop was held in September 2017 that demonstrated the high quality of work being done by ECRs. As Joe explained, ‘Many people who attended that seminar noted both the quality of the papers but also the warmth of the proceedings. This, in my experience, is reflective of all of UKAJI’s work.’
UKAJI has also been a great source of information, which saves other people a lot of time, and through its valuable website and Twitter activity it helps to convey what’s happening and who’s doing what: ‘One centre carrying out these functions saves many researchers the time of digging through information themselves (or – worse – being ignorant of developments).’
The research strategy being developed by the Public Law Project (PLP) has been influenced by UKAJI’s work on its research roadmap, including on issues such as Brexit and the rule of law, decision-making in immigration, access to judicial review, and online tribunals. Joe spoke of the influence on PLP’s thinking being ‘just one of many areas where UKAJI have directly and widely influenced the thinking of NGO’s and other bodies’:
‘Overall, I think UKAJI has been a very good thing. I think it has been a good thing for ECRs. I think has been a good thing for researchers. And I think it has been a good thing for organisations who take administrative justice concerns seriously. I hope it continues to have a presence in the administrative justice research community for many years to come.’
Nick O’Brien, tribunal judge and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool, spoke of UKAJI as a source of vision, knowledge and network. In terms of vision, UKAJI has argued for administrative justice to be seen as an approach, a way of looking at everyday life, and a set of principles and values governing interventions: ‘UKAJI’s vision of administrative justice as an overarching set of principles and values strikes me as admirably broad and ambitious, and perhaps the best I know.’ Nick also noted that UKAJI has helped to promote the idea that human rights starts in small places. Through its blog it has developed an important vehicle providing online conversation and sustaining momentum on administrative justice discussions. Real-world engagement is also important, and the UKAJI workshops have had a wide range of influences. The ECR network workshop mentioned by Joe was an optimistic event and gave hope for the future of administrative justice research.
Nick said that, as a network, UKAJI has been a source of intellectual friendship, through which vision and knowledge have been translated into practical connections, linking people who wouldn’t normally rub shoulders. This has produced a welcome cross-fertilisation of academics, researchers and practitioners:
‘UKAJI’s work has resulted for perhaps the first time in the sense of a genuine community of interest that stretches across the administrative justice world, including lawyers, mediators, ombuds, first-instance decision-makers and academics, and that holds out genuine grounds for optimism.’
Lindsey Poole, Director of Advice Services Alliance (ASA), spoke of the importance of research being used to change the world for the people served by the advice sector. The evidence base is still not where it should be, and this provides a valuable link between UKAJI and ASA to work together on evidence. The advice sector faces two issues: government policy doesn’t give people what they need to participate (because of poor policy); and decision-making and administration of policies is poor. If government got these two issues right, there would be no need for the advice sector and we could close up shop. This needs to be reflected back to government through research.
Attendees, guided by Andrew Le Sueur, Executive Dean of Humanities at the University of Essex, discussed the proposed research priorities in light of the challenges UKAJI has identified in the roadmap. The issue of access to data featured as a key concern. As well as administrative data held by government departments and local authorities, data sources include Citizens Advice and the wealth of other agencies within the advice sector, university repositories holding research data, and other sources that could usefully be brought together and highlighted on UKAJI’s website. Digitalisation presents opportunities for more data capture, but this depends on good design and goodwill to collect that data. One problem is where data is of no use to the process itself and so is not collected but would nevertheless provide valuable information on who is using the processes (and who is not) – such as demographic data on users could shed light on who is not challenging decisions.
Participants also discussed the future role of UKAJI. They agreed that the UKAJI blog, and particularly the What’s New updates, have been very helpful, and they hope that UKAJI will continue in its coordinating and information work and in events. This will also help the newly established Administrative Justice Council, which will be a collaborative venture of the judiciary, NGOs and policy makers, supported by JUSTICE.
The way that UKAJI has facilitated communication between researchers and HMCTS has been valuable, providing a new opportunity to work with government on plans for the future. Bringing government to the table is an important function. On the other hand, it is important to be aware that if researchers prioritise the critical requirements of government, by doing research that supports government’s delivery needs, then they run the risk of being ‘captured’ and compromising the integrity of the research findings. One question, for example, asks how to design a digital justice system, but the resources are not available to ask a more fundamental question: should justice be digitalised at all? Government departments’ capacity is spread very thin, and there is a need to advise government on pitfalls. With digitalisation, for example, there is a risk to open justice, that there will be less transparency – an example is the use of hearings in immigration appeals, which may no longer be public because those giving evidence may not be seen and identified by the appellant in the way they can be in in-person hearings. Also, the digital reform programme has an in-built assumption that 20% of people will not be able to access online processes.
There was discussion of the research questions posed in the summary of the UKAJI research roadmap. Some might be seen more as consultancy questions – for example, is an analysis of cost savings produced by system changes one for consultancy, or for critique, and does it require independent input on design? One argument is that the rippling effect of LASPO requires an independent and cross-disciplinary critique. There was much support for UKAJI being more cross-disciplinary, and this is particularly important on research on users’ perspectives, which can bring in expertise from anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines. Where UKAJI has been successful at cross-disciplinary engagement has been where it has focused on a specific issue, conveying different narratives – such as with the seminar on research on inequalities and benefit sanctions held jointly with LSE. Also, psychology perspectives are valuable influences on our understanding of vulnerability, and there is awareness that the category of vulnerability will be changing as more processes go online.
Thinking about the UKAJI community, therefore, is there a need to build trust and develop a community of practice between different disciplines? One way is to cast the research questions in different ways – have the research questions been adequately translated so that non-law researchers can understand the relevance to there are of practice?
The scope for a more international focus was also explored, and the need to consider how non-UK-based work can be built on. Work on reclaiming land for indigenous people, for example, based on fieldwork in India, could provide a framework through which to look at issues facing the UK – such as the position of EU citizens in a post-Brexit Britain. More comparative work could provide valuable lesson learning for developments in the UK and bring in different traditions. An example of cross-disciplinary and international comparative work is a workshop held on research on ombuds in Onati, Spain, in June 2017, which attracted a wide range of type of researcher and practitioner. Other examples include a successful conference held last summer on comparative administrative law and a comparative administrative justice handbook currently in development. There is, however, also a concern that UKAJI may be spread too thin. It has been impressively successful at cross-fertilisation of ideas but less successful at concrete policy results. There is a worry that a focus on international comparative work might dilute the limited resources.
There was general consensus among attendees that the priorities identified in the research roadmap, with their focus on information, digitalisation and people, are the right ones. There was also agreement that the momentum generated by UKAJI towards establishing a coordinated, practical approach to research should be continued. The establishment of the new Administrative Justice Council is a welcome and positive step, but there is also a need to maintain a focus on empirical research needs and to promote a broader understanding of administrative justice and its scale, relevance and reach. To do so, we need to join together in a creative joint effort to develop a healthy and robust research environment, share learning across the administrative justice mosaic, pursue opportunities to experiment and collaborate, and consider how more can be done with less.