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Empirical Legal Research at UCL Laws

Background to the Inquiry

The Problem

Increasing concern is being expressed within the academy and the user community about a perceived dwindling of capacity to undertake rigorous empirical research in law. While a generation of skilled research scholars is approaching retirement age, there is little evidence that the following generations are equipped to take its place. This decline in capacity is happening at a time when there are excellent opportunities to enhance understanding of legal phenomena by building on foundational empirical work completed over the last twenty years, and when the demand for empirical research to inform and evaluate policy is actually growing.

Questions about ‘capacity’ in empirical legal studies are not new. Nor is the Nuffield Foundation’s engagement with this issue. In 1971 the Foundation was concerned enough to set up its own Legal Advice Research Unit, which eventually led to the formation of the Legal Action Group. At the same time, it launched a scheme of Social Science Fellowships for Law Teachers, so that university teachers of law could spend a year working in a social science department on a socio-legal research project. In the first year, there were no applicants and the scheme seems to have closed after a few years.

In 1994 the ESRC commissioned a Review of Socio-Legal studies after the decision to end core funding of the Oxford Socio-Legal Centre. In its Conclusion the Review of Socio-Legal Studies noted that “There is a shortage of staff within law departments to provide training in socio-legal research, and social science departments do not have legally trained academics who can assist in developing an interest in, and knowledge about, law as a focus for research activity.”

The most recent Annual Conference of the Socio-Legal Studies Association in 2003 was attended by 370 UK academics, 87% of whom were based in law departments. Of the 327 academics listed in the SLSA Directory, only 57 could be said to include funded empirical inquiry in their profile and 26 of these were located in departments other than law (principally criminology, sociology, social policy, politics and government). This picture of relatively low levels of empirical activity among legal academics is also supported by ESRC information on applications for research funding and supported posts where the number of applications has remained consistently low.

The concern about capacity to conduct empirical legal research goes well beyond the need and interests of academic practitioners and users. Rigorous empirical research of law and the institutions of law as they operate is needed to underpin many areas of legal policy. An obvious example is the public funding of legal services. The Nuffield Foundation funded much of the work that looked at the first round of changes to the public funding of legal services, but there is little capacity to take a broader look at areas that seem to be causing specific problems in the delivery of legal services, including public family law. Another area in urgent need of an empirical evidence base is the proposed radical change to the system of tribunals in England and Wales, predicated on many assumptions about the needs of tribunal users and the public more generally. The system of tribunals produces judicial decisions in over 1 million cases annually, frequently touching the lives of some of the most disadvantaged groups in society. Empirical research evidence on tribunals is patchy and some of it quite old, and yet recently there has been difficulty in finding skilled researchers with the time to undertake such research. More generally government is making increasing use of law to regulate economic, social and family relationships and processes, and yet we have remarkably little empirical evidence about what types of regulation may work in what circumstance or how regulatory control could be improved. Regulation affects areas such as school decisions, planning, regulation of services and so on. The fundamental point is that while law is an increasingly important feature of modern life, it seems that we have a decreasing capacity to keep it under policy-relevant empirical examination.

Although the problem of under-capacity to undertake high quality empirical research is not confined to the discipline of law, there are probably unique factors in the legal field that need to be understood and addressed by a specific strategy rather than via a more generic approach as envisaged, for example, in the current ESRC research methods programme.

This inquiry will bring together parts of the academy, professions and users of research to examine this important issue and identify the ways in which it may be possible to work together to improve the situation in the future. The Inquiry will:

  • Provide factual information about current capacity;
  • Articulate the different aspects of the capacity problem;
  • Understand the causes of the problem including incentives and disincentives for conducting empirical research in law, drawing on evidence from a wide range of sources, including overseas experience;
  • Bring together a range of people who do not often get together, including the major players in legal education and training, users of research and a wide range of policy-makers to develop a shared understanding of the issues and see if concerted action is possible;
  • Identify a range of possible solutions; and
  • Make recommendations for a programme of short, medium and longer-term initiatives and activities that might help to alleviate the problem.

The Inquiry Approach

The Inquiry will be guided by a distinguished Advisory Committee.

To achieve the objectives of the Inquiry a number of activities will be undertaken over a one-year period, including: v Publication of a consultation document to be widely distributed within the academy and among relevant users inviting written responses.

  • Four or five regional meetings with academics to discuss the issues raised in the consultation document.
  • Research to catalogue available and relevant research methods training programmes.
  • Research among existing legal scholars engaged in empirical research. This work will detail demographic profiles and explore career trajectories and expectations in order to understand how these are shaped within different disciplinary identities.
  • Research on capacity issues in other jurisdictions that will identify similarities with and differences from the UK situation and suggest whether there are lessons that can be learned.
  • A series of four seminars to be held at the Nuffield Foundation for academics, policy-makers, the judiciary, practitioners and other non-academic users of empirical research in law.
  • Publication of a final report with recommendations.



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