ADR UK makes £3 million investment in MoJ data linkage for research to improve understanding of justice system

The data-linking programme, ‘Data First’, will anonymously link data from across the family, civil and criminal courts in England and Wales, enabling sustainable research on how the justice system is used. The data will be de-identified – meaning it can’t be used to identify individuals – and accessible only to researchers within government and accredited expert academics. 

The intention of the Data First programme is that by understanding how people move between the family, civil and criminal justice systems, MoJ will have better evidence to help inform the development of policies and services, such as those that could: 

  • enable people to access support swiftly and effectively to resolve civil justice problems such as homelessness or debt; 

  • avoid the escalation of civil justice problems into the criminal courts; 

  • reduce the number of repeat users of the justice system; 

  • improve people’s overall experience of the justice system. 

“The Data First project is likely to be the most significant step forward in the provision of hard and reliable information about the family justice system for a generation... Its advent could not be more welcome.” Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division of the judiciary in England and Wales

Data First will also facilitate the linking of justice data with that of other UK Government departments, and the Welsh Government, thereby enhancing our understanding of how justice system users interact with other public services in England and Wales. This will give further insight into their needs, pathways and outcomes – for instance, showing the distribution of educational backgrounds among different groups within the justice system. 

The Data First project is taking place within the legal framework provided by Parliament in 2017 with the passing of the Digital Economy Act, legislation which enables public bodies to share data for the purposes of research, subject to a number of criteria including that the identities of data subjects are not disclosed. This reflects a long-standing drive across government to make better use of the information it routinely collects through the provision of public services, such as the courts, to inform good policy decisions. No new data is being collected. 

This is one of the first major funding grants to a UK government department made by ADR UK, a £44 million Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) investment which aims to transform the way researchers access the wealth of administrative data already created by government and public bodies across the UK. 

The recommendation to fund the Data First project was made by ADR UK’s Research Commissioning Board (RCB), a panel of independent experts who assess applications to ensure that they represent good science and good value for money. 

Announcing the funding of Data First, Dr Emma Gordon, Director of ADR UK, said: “We are hugely excited to be funding the Data First project, which has true transformative potential, both for analysis and improvement of the justice system, and for demonstrating the wider value of linking administrative data. It represents a big step forward for researchers and policymakers in England and Wales. 

“This programme can help inform and shape a smarter, more responsive justice system that understands how involvement with the civil justice system – for instance because of issues such as homelessness or debt – can escalate to involvement with the criminal justice system further down the line, and which puts measures in place to support people and prevent this from happening. 

“With Data First, the Ministry of Justice is becoming a leader in making better use of administrative data to inform good policy and practice. At ADR UK, we would like to encourage other government departments to think about how they can unlock the potential of their own data, and we are already engaging with a number of them to enable them to do so. Researchers, too, should think about how they can make use of this rich new resource to deliver insights for public benefit.” 

Adrian Richards, Director of Data and Analytical Services at MoJ, said: “We are grateful to ADR UK for this important funding which will help transform the way researchers can access and use the wealth of data we hold. 

“This will enable us to create a sustainable bank of knowledge on those coming into contact with the justice system – helping us to improve their experience and outcomes across the family, civil and criminal courts.” 

Welcoming the announcement, Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division of the judiciary in England and Wales, said: “The Data First project is likely to be the most significant step forward in the provision of hard and reliable information about the family justice system for a generation. It breaks entirely new ground and the fruits of the data that will be provided are likely to inform policy and practice, and identify important trends for decades to come. Its advent could not be more welcome.” 

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