Legal research tries to catch up to medicine, education

New study to gather evidence for public and politicians

Legal research tries to catch up to medicine, education
Trevor Farrow says his team will begin working on a longitudinal impact study

A person’s legal wellbeing may not get the same attention as education and healthcare — but data could improve how the public views the justice system, says one researcher. 

Trevor Farrow, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, says his team will begin working on a type of longitudinal impact study that is common in the healthcare and education fields, but “very new” to the legal sector. Farrow, joined by Lisa Moore of the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, announced they had received a grant on July 3.

“In peer areas like health and education, I think we’ve seen over the past several decades a real attention to data, a real attention to impact, and a real attention to evidence-based research. So, for example, we know with some degree of certainty how different people will respond to different medical or drug therapies,” says Farrow.

“We have a pretty good sense of how kids will respond to different kinds of early childhood education initiatives. Comparatively, we don’t have a great sense of the actual benefits of different kinds of justice interventions: paralegal services, mediation, informal court services or other community based initiatives.” 

It’s still only the first phase of the study, but Farrow says one approach to the study could be to work with one or several legal clinics and collaborate with their clients to track the impact of the legal service over a specific period. Although the researchers are still looking for potential partners and research questions, practice areas like poverty law, housing law, and potentially disability law or youth justice law could be ripe for research, says Farrow.

“So, for example, spending money on assisting people with housing has the direct benefit, often, of keeping them with housing or, certainly, with a housing plan,” Farrow says. “So, it avoids the direct impact of people losing their housing or having a more precarious housing situation — and knock-on effects of health impacts, stress impacts, loss of employment impacts, and impacts on social services safety nets as a result of those lost houses. There’s a longitudinal impact when people don’t get justice services.” 

Farrow says he hopes the new study — which mirrors the type of research that has been done outside Canada — shows policy makers and members of the public that trying to cut costs from legal services to devote to health and education can sometimes be a false economy.  

Farrow’s comments come after former Ontario attorney general Caroline Mulroney told Law Times that “while some lawyers may not welcome renewed accountability at legal aid, every dollar saved is a dollar we can invest in the services that matter most to people, such as public health care and education.” 

Farrow did not mention any specific policymaker, but says that justice sector policies have lacked much-needed evidence. He says that as research shifts its focus from legal providers to focus more on the public, lawyers can get a better idea of the gaps in the system.

“Good eating, diet, healthy living — all of this stuff is good for us individually, and it’s also good for the state. And I think we need to start seeing justice in that way. Lawyers and justice are not simply for bad people and for people who haven’t been able to get their life together. We know that everyone, over the course of their lifetime, from the research, is going to need legal assistance, and the better we do on the front end will save us all on the back end,” says Farrow. 

“This research really zeros in on: When people need help, what kinds of things work and why? Let’s start to provide decision makers with some real evidence .… and get society into the game on why justice matters.”

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