Access to the courts or to court records?
The approval you need depends on the courts (or court records) that you hope to access in your research:
Courts other than coroners’ courts
Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCS) provides information for researchers who wish to carry out any of the following activities:
- gathering data from courts (including access to court files);
- collecting data from court staff;
- collecting data from the judiciary; or
- accessing data held outside the courts by other parties involved in the proceedings.
There are three stages to the process of securing access, and the HMCS guidance warns that it takes time - they suggest 7/8 weeks on average (which means that it may take longer on occasion). The three stages are:
(1) Securing sponsorship from the relevant Business Area (Policy Division) of HMCS (e.g. Crime, Civil, Family).
To apply for approval, you need to identify a sponsor for your research within the appropriate Business Area - or division - of HMCS. If you do not have a sponsor identified for your work, you can contact the Data Access Panel Secretariat for advice. If your research crosses the different Business Areas, you will have to decide on a lead Area, and find a sponsor in that division. You need to have the sponsor in place before you make your formal application
(2) Formal application to the HMCS Data Access Panel (DAP) for approval by the HMCS Performance Committee.
You have to make a formal request to the HMCS Data Access Panel (DAP) and Performance Committee, by completing a form providing details of your research. The form asks for copies of research materials (such as questionnaires) and warns that ‘any lack of clarity may well delay/stall the Application’. You need to provide information in particular on any impact that your work may have on HMCS staff, and on the relevance of the work to government objectives (Public Service Agreements and other key targets). As with other permissions, it is worth spending time on the form, and being as detailed as possible, to avoid delays to your project in the long run. If you are doing this kind of application for the first time, you might want to have a look at the Annual Reviews published by the DAP Secretariat, which give information about the projects approved and timescales for approval.
(3) If your research involves court files, or recording other restricted information, you will also need to apply for a Privileged Access Agreement.
Court records are closed to the public until they are at least 30 years old, but - under special conditions - the Ministry of Justice may allow access to court records or other restricted information. The guidance states that the grounds for giving access must be ‘substantive and sufficient to outweigh the exemption’. Permission is granted by the Departmental Records Officer (who has authority delegated from the Lord Chancellor), and requests are to be made in writing, according to the guidance on the HMCS website.
As might be expected, given that this is an exceptional permission, you need to allow even more time - the HMCS guidance suggests up to 13 weeks, after you have your DAP approval. It is therefore critical that you build in time for this in your project, and consider too, whether it is really necessary to access these records for your work.
CAFCASS and Family Courts
CAFCASS (the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) is an independent public body, appointed by the Department for Education and Skills, which provides support to children through family court proceedings. The main types of cases in which they help are:
- when parents or carers are separating or divorcing and cannot reach agreement about arrangements for their children;
- public care proceedings, when social services are involved and children may be placed in care; or
- when children could be adopted.
If your research involves these areas, and you hope to do any of the following activities, you need permission from CAFCASS through their Research Governance Framework:
- interviewing CAFCASS staff;
- obtaining information about CAFCASS work from electronic or paper records; and
- sampling children or families who have received CAFCASS services.
More detail about the CAFCASS requirements can be found on the research pages of their website. The key point to note is that CAFCASS do not accept approvals from other bodies (such as a University or NHS ethics committees), and so you may need CAFCASS approval in addition to the other permissions you have secured.
If you wish to conduct research involving the Tribunals Service, Ministry of Justice advice is to contact the Tribunals Service directly to make a request. You can email email@example.com - give your email the subject heading Research Request. Our advice would be to provide a reasonable amount of detail in your initial contact (e.g., with a short email and a more detailed information summary attached), as this may speed up the process. It may be helpful to make initial contact to check their requirements before you submit a full application.
Ministry of Justice guidance states that you will be expected to provide full information on: which tribunals you plan to work in, and over what period of time; the case files or data you plan to work on (and how they will be identified); details of your research plans, including steps you can take to minimise disruption or inconvenience to tribunal staff; and copies or information about your research materials. See the MoJ guidance for more detail.
As a general rule - and as with requests to access courts - the decision about whether to grant you access will depend on persuading them that your work is worthwhile, and that it will not cause undue disruption to the work of the tribunals or their staff.
The guidance above does not apply to research involving Coroners’ Courts. The website of the Coroner Society provides some information about research involving Coroners’ Courts, and it is recommended that you contact them for more specific advice if you are planning research in this area.