UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health


Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health


Legal Epidemiology Group

The UCL Legal Epidemiology Group is an interdisciplinary research group based at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health in the Population, Policy & Practice Programme.

What do we do?

We carry out epidemiological research with the aim of better understanding how the law operates on a day-to-day basis and how it affects the health and well-being of the population. We specialise in the use of population-level quantitative methodology to analyse administrative data sets including those from the courts, health, social care and education sectors.

What is legal epidemiology?

We define legal epidemiology as the branch of epidemiology that seeks to bridge the gap between the fields of legal and health and well-being research in order to provide answers to policy- and practice-relevant research questions. It aims to contribute to the understanding of how legal processes operate on a population level and the short- and long-term outcomes for the individuals whom they affect, in all domains of health and well-being. Promoting the use of empirical methods to understand law and effectively disseminating research findings to improve the quality of policy and individual-level decision-making are both central to its approach.

Legal epidemiology is not just about the law of health or healthcare. Instead it recognises that a host of upstream, social factors influence health and well-being across life. As such, legal epidemiology seeks to understand law in all its manifestations in society. You can read more about our conceptualisation of legal epidemiology in Jay MA. Legal epidemiology, evidence-informed law and administrative data: new frontiers in the study of family justice. In: Creutzfeldt N, Mason M, McConnachie K. Routledge Handbook of Socio-Legal Theory and Methods. London: Routledge, 2019.

Group members

  • Matthew A Jay
  • Rachel Pearson
  • Louise Mc Grath-Lone
  • Linda Wijlaars
  • Ruth Gilbert


Current projects

Evaluating the Children Act: a legal epidemiological investigation of the educational outcomes of looked after children and children in need

Why is this research needed?

Protection of children form harm and the promotion of their welfare in England is achieved through a variety of statutory mechanisms. Chief among these is the Children Act 1989, which provided a unified code for resolving disputes about children’s upbringing. The Act invests powers and duties in local authorities (LAs) with respect to assessing children and providing services for children in need (CiN); instigating child protection investigations and child protection plans; and receiving children into care either through a court order or with consent of the parents, by which they become children look after (CLA). The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration. To date, limited population-level research has been conducted into either how the system operates or the long-term outcomes of the children it affects. This is especially so regarding their education.

What are we going to do?

The research question of this PhD project are:

  1. For children who become CLA or CiN during primary school, what is the nature of the schools that they attend for their secondary education in terms of school type and quality and what factors determine this?
  2. How well do CLA and CiN perform in their GCSE exams and what factors determine this?

I will be using data generated routinely by schools and local authorities on CiN, CLA and the general population to examine how factors such as children’s trajectories through the care system influence the outcomes listed in the two aims, above.

Further information

Contact Matthew Jay

Funder: MRC through the UCL-Birkbeck Doctoral Training Partnership

Understanding local authority variation in receiving children into care

Why is this research needed?

The number of children in England who become ‘looked-after’ (i.e. children who are in the care of their local authority or accommodated by children’s social care services) has continued to rise in recent years. However, there is large variation among local authorities and some have even seen a decrease in the number children becoming looked-after each year.

What are we going to do?

This analysis will look at how much of this variation can be explained by risk factors for entry into care. In particular, we will explore the impact of poor health outcomes among mothers such as mental ill health, substance misuse and experience of violence or adversity on the variation in the number of children received into local authority care.

Further information

Contact Rachel Pearson

Understanding the healthcare needs of mothers involved in care proceedings

Why is this research needed?

Mothers involved in care proceedings often have complex healthcare needs, such as drug and/or alcohol misuse, exposure to violence and mental health problems, as well as chronic physical conditions. However, there is insufficient evidence about the extent to which healthcare needs of mothers whose children enter public care or are adopted are sufficiently met before, during and after care proceedings.  In addition, around 1 in 4 mothers involved in an initial care proceeding will be subject to recurrent care proceedings within seven years - initial evidence suggests that many are caught in a cycle of repeat pregnancies within quick succession of one another, leaving them with insufficient time or resources to evidence change to their capacity to parent. As the rate of children placed in out-of-home care rises, so too does the need to identify opportunities to engage with women in a healthcare setting to reduce the likelihood of initial and recurrent care proceedings and to improve the health and welfare outcomes for vulnerable mothers and children.

What are we going to do?

We will conduct novel data linkage of case management data from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and administrative NHS healthcare records to provide the first national systematic analysis of the health needs of mothers in England, before, during and after care proceedings.  This research project will provide evidence of how healthcare need and use differs between mothers who become subject to care proceedings and those who do not. This will inform the development of healthcare interventions that could be triggered through referrals in courts, social care and healthcare services to reduce unmet healthcare need among mothers at risk of/subject to care proceedings.

Further information

Contact Rachel Pearson

Past projects

Public and private family law: understanding the overlap

Why was this research needed?

Within the context of the Children Act 1989, a distinction is frequently drawn between public and private family law. The public branch concerns state interventions in the lives of families in connection with child protection. Local authorities (LAs) have duties to safeguard the welfare of children in their areas and a range of powers at their disposal to discharge this duty. By contrast, the private domain is characterised by disputes between private parties concerning the upbringing of a child. This typically occurs in the context of relationship breakdown (whether or not there is a divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership). Recourse to the court is available where the parties cannot agree between themselves, with section 8 orders (e.g. child arrangements orders) being the most common private law orders. It has been suggested, however, that this neat dichotomy breaks down in practice and in fact many cases are a hybrid of both. The extent to which this occurs, and the extent to which children who come through the private system return to it or the public system is currently unknown. Our study therefore seeks to answer the question: to what extent is there an overlap between English private and public family child law?

What did we do?

We had been granted access by the Ministry of Justice to its Children in Family Justice Data Share. This contains linked data from the family courts administrative database named FamilyMan, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) data, Children Looked After data and National Pupil Database data. Using these data we quantified the extent to which children who are involved in private family law proceedings return to court or are otherwise found to be in the public family law system.


Jay MA, Pearson R, Wijlaars L, Olhede S, Gilbert R. Using administrative data to quantify overlaps between public and private children law in England: report for the Ministry of Justice on the Children in Family Justice Data Share pilot. Download the full report or a one-page summary.

Further information

Contact Matthew Jay


For any queries about the Legal Epidemiology Group, please contact Matthew Jay.