Experts “too quick to dismiss” public concern over use of court data

Byrom: We have to take the public with us

Senior government officials and lawtech specialists accept there is “meaningful” public concern about the use of data from the justice system, but often suggest the public does not “really understand the system”, a report has found.

Dr Natalie Byrom, director of Justice Lab, which holds its public launch in the House of Commons this week, said she found this attitude “quite worrying”.

She explained: “The justice system is continually lurching from crisis to crisis, partly because of a lack of basic information about what happens to people in the system.

“How many vulnerable people are there in the civil justice system? We don’t know. How many judges sat during Covid? Are Nightingale Courts more effective than remote hearings? We don’t know.”

The Justice Lab is a policy and research centre whose goal is to use data and evidence to tackle the most pressing problems facing the justice system.

Dr Byrom said research had found that during 2020, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) could not answer 40% of parliamentary questions because of a lack of data.

“The justice system is not set up to hear from people on what matters to them. If we’re serious about improving data on the justice system, we have to take the public with us or face a massive backlash and loss of public trust.”

Justice Lab commissioned an evaluation report on research it had carried out with Ipsos UK this summer, which revealed widespread public concern about the use of data from the courts by tech companies.

Researchers from campaign group Connected by Data interviewed 10 ‘key stakeholders’ in the world of justice data, including government officials, a judge, lawtech specialists and public technologists, three of whom were members of the Shadow Senior Data Governance Panel, which advises the MoJ, judiciary and HM Courts Service on the use of data.

Researchers said: “Key audiences were open to future public engagement activities, but generally expressed reservations about giving the public a larger formal role in justice data governance.”

None of the interviewees working within the justice system “expressed support for greater structured and sustained public participation in justice data governance”.

They were concerned, among other things, that the process could be ‘hijacked’ by particular interests.

Researchers said there were “significant cultural barriers to be overcome” if public participation was to be “embedded within the governance of justice system data”.

This included “a strong culture of ‘expert authority’ within the justice system” that created “particular challenges” for the way public voice was brought in.

“There was a general perception from interviewees that the level of public concern about justice data was primarily because the public were uninformed, and that because of the complexity of the court system it was not reasonable to expect members of the public to become adequately informed, even following a dialogue process.”

Dr Byrom added: “Our justice system is years behind other public services like health and education in collecting and using data to understand performance and impact.

“We need a fundamental shift in attitude and culture to ensure that changes are underpinned by solid evidence and that decision-makers are accountable to those who need the law most.”

Justice Lab is funded by The Legal Education Foundation, where Dr Byrom is head of research, and has operated within it since 2018. Projects include improving data systems to support victims in the criminal justice system.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the House of Commons justice select committee, said Justice Lab performed “a vital role in promoting data and evidence to help understand the problems that exist in the justice system and, just as importantly, how to fix them”.

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