‘Lived Experience of the Law’: Reflections on the process of participatory policymaking

As shared previously, Revolving Doors is currently undertaking a three-year research project focused on understanding people’s ‘Lived Experience of the Law’ in partnership with the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

The pilot phase of the project has now concluded. Revolving Doors’ Research Manager Dr. Monica Thomas shares more about the project’s use of policy workshops to co-produce recommendations for policy and practice in the family justice sphere:

The pilot phase of the ‘Lived Experience of the Law’ project set out to develop an understanding of people’s experiences of public law care proceedings in the family courts and advocate for reforms to enhance access to justice. During the pilot phase, we conducted 21 narrative interviews with parents and special guardians and carried out a series of observations in a local family court.

Key findings included:

  • The lack of available support, guidance and information for parents and special guardians before court hearings.
  • People feeling silenced and disempowered during court hearings.
  • Perceptions that time moved too quickly at certain points of the process and too slowly at others, heightening feelings of anxiety and resulting in rushed decision-making.
  • The lasting impact of the judge’s comments, recommendations and decisions.
  • The lack of support and guidance available to parents and special guardians after proceedings concluded. 

At the end of the pilot phase, we hosted a pilot policy workshop facilitated by two peer researchers working on the project, Charlie and Jeanette. The workshop provided a space for people with lived and professional expertise to reflect on our initial findings, engage in an open dialogue with one another and co-produce initial recommendations for policy and practice. It also allowed us to test our model of participatory policymaking before entering the main phase of the research project where we aim to host a series of further workshops relating to both the family and criminal courts.

As part of the workshop, we were joined by an artist who created an innovative live illustration of the discussion. The resulting artwork provides a creative way for us to communicate our findings and co-produced recommendations in an accessible, easily sharable format. We aim to share this illustration with professionals and policy makers working in and around the family courts. 

Through this research parents and legal guardians have repeatedly expressed their experience of being silenced within the family court – despite having so much to say. I therefore think the policy workshop was particularly powerful because not only did it provide the platform for participants to speak, but also for them to be heard and responded to.

Members of the research team also shared the following reflections:

“The voices of the applicants that were able to join the meeting were so powerful when sharing their experiences.  The motivations of everyone came across very loud and clear: that they were so happy to be part of a team with an agenda to help change how the family system operates, so other men and women do not have to go through the same trauma as we did.”

Jeanette, Revolving Doors peer researcher

“Some of the things about the family court that have come up in the interviews have really given me the passion to fight for change. I can’t wait to carry on the work and be the person conducting interviews. I’ve enjoyed all of the opportunities for facilitation, including the policy workshop, and I’ve really enjoyed working with my team.”
Charlie, Peer Researcher (Revolving Doors)

“The workshop was well tailored as it was informed by members of staff from Revolving Doors and experienced staff from research as well as third sector organisations. It was a settling and calming experience with some real eye openers about how the family court system operates and translates to day-to-day life.”
Anthony, Peer Researcher (Revolving Doors) 

“It was great to hear reactions to the research findings and the discussions about what needs to change within the family justice system.  More importantly, we were proud to see interviewees and peer researchers speak about their experiences and give their ideas for reform. As individuals who felt they had no voice in the family court, they embraced the opportunity to speak openly and indeed lead the discussion. In our eyes the workshop was a success, and we look forward to completing more workshops over the course of the project.”
 Nicola Campbell and Gill Hunter (Researchers, ICPR)

“Listening to reflections from those with lived experience of the family courts was a humbling experience. My overall assessment is that parents are not supported through the process and so enter a ‘David verses Goliath’ situation where they are up against a powerful system.  I think peer researchers facilitating the session created a feeling of safety for those participating who had experience as parents and so reflections were honest, insightful and open.”
Kelly, Policy Manager (Revolving Doors)

We would like to thank everyone who has participated in our research so far and look forward to sharing further updates from later stages of this project.