HM Courts & Tribunals Service - Information for researchers

Part 1 Access to Courts and Tribunals for researchers

Information for researchers (largely government funded and academic researchers) who want to carry out research in courts, (other than coroners’ courts) or tribunals.

You may want to:

  • gather data from the courts/tribuanls (including gaining access to court files)
  • have court/tribunal staff complete questionnaires or be interviewed
  • have the judiciary complete questionnaires or be interviewed; or
  • access documents that are held outside the courts by parties to the proceedings, such as those kept on local authority social services files or by CAFCASS, but that remain court documents which, if family cases, require prior statutory approval from the President of the Family Division.

For access to research in Prisons please see HM Prison Service Research.

Despite the potentially diverse nature of research requests, there is one basic procedure to follow (unless your request only relates to access to the judiciary). The principal method to have permission granted for research in the courts involves:

  • consultation with the appropriate Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) Business Area (Crime - Crown Court/magistrates' courts, civil, family or tribunals) - seeking their sponsorship.
  • consideration by HM Courts & Tribunals Service  Data Access Panel (DAP) and approval by HM Courts and Tribunals Service Operational Managers, and 
  • in many cases, a Privileged Access Agreement (PAA) issued by the Ministry of Justice in order to formalise access to court/tribunal files under the provisions of the Public Records Act 1958

These processes take time, depending upon the complexity of your request. Applications, when approved, will take on average 7/8 weeks, once a formal and complete DAP application has been received. You should therefore build this into your research timetable and make sure you come to us in good time for the beginning of your proposed research.

It is also important that any information you provide us with is part of the final plan for the project, since if anything changes we may have to restart the access procedure from the beginning. In general you should come to us once you have secured funding, at least in principle and when your proposals are clear, as proposals can often change during funding and / or have been granted approval via an independent ethical review committee, at least in principle and when your proposals are clear, as proposals can often change during funding negotiations.

If you want to discuss your plans, please get in touch with the appropriate business area, in order to clarify your request and seek their sponsorship.

We hope that this information will help you to prepare your access request and look forward to hearing from you.

Part 2 How Access requests work

2.1 Consultation with Business Area (Operational Policy Division)

The first stage of applying for access to the courts is to consult with the appropriate HMCTS business area (operational policy division).

All research requires sponsorship by a HMCTS business area. If you are not already in contact with them, once you have prepared your methodology and completed the Data Access Panel Application form (and guidance) please send the documents to the DAP Secretariat who will forward them to the appropriate business area and request their support, if you have not done so already. For example, if your research includes visiting Crown and magistrates’ courts -  or any other cross-jurisdictional proposal then you will need to make the judgment as to the business area that has the leading role.

The main purpose of this is to find out whether the proposed research duplicates any research currently being conducted; whether it is factually sound; and whether there are any imminent changes in the law or the administration of the courts that could make the research redundant. It is important to appreciate that your proposal will need to have business sponsorship in order for the DAP to consider it in the wider context of HMCS activity.

NB: If your research only requires access to the judiciary, your business sponsor will be the Judicial Office and you should contact researchrequest@judiciary.gsi.gov.uk for details of the separate arrangements for this process.

2.2 Consideration by the HMCTS Data Access Panel (DAP)

The second stage of applying for access, is to complete a DAP Application form (and guidance), submit it to the DAP secretariat, obtain the Panel's support, followed by and the approval of the DAP Board.

The HMCTS DAP (then as the Data Approval Panel) was formally created in July 2005.

The panel aims to monitor all requests for research or new data collections that affect HMCTS, ensuring that any additional burden placed on the courts is justified, and that the proposed research request is feasible and practical. The DAP also aims to assist researchers by advising whether the data they require is available from other sources which are more easily accessed than case files. The DAP does not sponsor the research – each application requires a HMCTS business sponsor.

The completed application is viewed by the Panel, which includes representatives from or on behalf of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (Resources Directorate, Operations Directorate) and the Ministry of Justice (Research Unit, Economics & Statistics Division and Records Management Service).

Please contact the Data Access Panel Secretariat if you have any questions about the form

The business area sponsor will usually liase with the court/s and or hearing places on your behalf. If your research includes interviews with the judiciary, the business sponsor will liase with the Judicial Office to obtain senior judicial approval.

2.3 Granting a Privileged Access Agreement (PAA)

The final stage of applying for access is being granted a PAA

If the research will involve looking at court files or recording other restricted information a PAA must be issued in advance by the Ministry of Justice’s Record Management Services (RMS). RMS will not proceed in advance of the approval through the DAP process to the research. The PAA is a binding agreement between the researchers and the Department that the researcher will fully anonymise all information collected, and that certain other safeguards will be met. It is to protect sensitive information under the terms of the Public Records Acts 1958 and 1967 and the Data Protection Act 1998.

Once RMS has this information, the formalisation of your access will be dealt with as quickly as possible. However, because of the procedures involved, it is possible that the PAA can take up to 4 weeks once RMS have been provided with the full finalised and agreed details of your research.

Further details can be found in Part 4 What is a PAA (Privileged Access Agreement) and when do I need one?

Part 3 Applying for access

The Data Access Panel Application form should include your research proposal, the supporting methodology and full details, where appropriate, of:

  • How many courts/tribunals you plan to look at and how you plan to identify them;
  • Which courts/tribunals you are planning to work in, and over what period of time;
  • What courts/tribunals work you plan to observe, how you plan to go about this, and how you make sure that court users, staff, and members of the judiciary are not inconvenienced;
  • What data is to be gathered;
  • What questionnaires and interviews are you planning, and what questions you plan to ask and of whom;

  • If the research involves looking at case files, which case files are proposed to be accessed (include case number and location, if known)
  • Who will be involved in the research? If a PAA is needed it must include the names and a CV for everyone doing the research. Only those named in the PAA will be able to do work in the courts and hearing centres.

To facilitate this process you should consider the following questions in drawing up your proposal:

3.1 Does your research involve looking at case files?

Court/tribunal staff are pressed for time, and extracting case files takes up significant amounts of time. You should therefore consider:

  • Are there any other sources from which you can get the same information? Are there collections of statistics you could use, or would files with the information you need be available from solicitors’ firms and other legal service providers?
  • How are you going to identify the files you want to look at? If you can provide case numbers, finding the file is relatively straightforward. Less specific searches are unlikely to be approved because the courts/tribunals do not have the resources to sift through cases and select case files for studies. It is important to understand that case files are not public documents and cannot be directly accessed by researchers. Therefore random access is not allowed.
  • Is the number of files you plan to look at reasonable and proportionate to the aims of your research? 

3.2 Does your research involve observation of court processes?

If you want to observe hearings in open court you are, like all members of the public, welcome. In other cases you will need special permission. If the case is ‘in camera’ or ‘in chambers’ only individuals who are party to the proceedings are permitted to attend. You should be aware that there are restrictions on the types of records that can be taken of any court/tribunal hearing (no audio recording, for example), and a sympathetic approach should be shown to the needs and wishes of the parties and staff. In sensitive cases, we strongly advise consultation (through your business area sponsor) with members of the judiciary involved, before you start and you should be aware that the parties might object to your presence in courts/tribunals, and that the judge may not allow it. 

3.3 Does your research involve asking questions of court/tribunal users?

You should consider whether you wish to use survey questionnaires or conduct interviews. In general more senior members of the judiciary prefer to be interviewed, but you should be wary of expecting to take up too much of their time.

There are various restrictions on the participation of court/tribunal users:

  • Court/tribunal staff cannot give personal details of court/tribunal users. If you want to invite users to take part in your research you should provide postage paid letters, whose contents will have been formally approved by the Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service, to be addressed and posted / distributed by court/tribunal staff. You should bear in mind the time it takes to do this.
  • You should be aware of the sensitivity of talking to court/tribunal users. Anything that might cause distress will not be agreed; and
  • You will not be able to communicate with juries.

If you require assistance in preparing surveys and questionnaire, staff from the Ministry of Justice's Justice Statistics Analytical Services (JSAS) will be happy to help.

Part 4 What is a PAA (Privilege Access Agreement) and when do I need one?

The access rights provided by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FoI) do not alter the position in relation to case files as was previously ordered by the Public Records Acts 1958 and 1967 (PRAs). Case files are still closed to the public until they are a minimum of thirty years old and are exempt from the access rights provided by the FoI. However, special authority to inspect records which are exempt from the FoI access rights can be granted by the Ministry of Justice [MoJ], as the Department responsible for all court files in England and Wales. This is when a requestor can demonstrate that it would be appropriate or even desirable for access to be allowed to a group of files for a specified reason and the Departmental Records Officer has the authority, devolved direct from the Lord Chancellor, to grant such access. It should be noted that access under the FoI regime means that any information released to a requestor then becomes available to the wider public.

The requirement to apply for a PAA even applies to other Government Departments. As no reference is made in the PRAs or the FoI to Government Departments having automatic rights of access to each other's records, a PAA is a requirement, before any such access can take place.

4.1 How individuals apply for access to closed archived records for 'family' reasons

Requests for access to single files for purely personal reasons are not treated in the same way as requests for access to groups of files for formal academic research projects.

Because the Freedom of Information Act 2000 [FoI] is a public access regime, that means that any information released to an applicant under the FoI then becomes available to the wider public. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ), as part of the Criminal Justice System, has a duty to protect and support victims of crime and their families. Case files can contain material of a distressing nature. Files or extracts of a file are often closed for extended periods to prevent possible harm to individuals.

However, it may still be possible for individuals to obtain access to the information that archived files contain. In some cases, where the information requested cannot be released to the wider public under the FoI due to the application of exemptions, it may be possible to allow victims or members of the victim's immediate family to view the documents. Rather than pursue a FoI request, a request can be made to the Departmental Records Officer [DRO] for MoJ, asking for privileged access to the file.

If permission were granted to proceed in this way, access to the requested file would take place at MoJ Headquarters in London. MoJ can provide a private area within which to see the file for a limited period, explain why the file has been retained, and the sensitivity issues that have been considered to justify the extended closure of the file, whilst ensuring that the file is not made available to the wider public.

In order to request access to a court/tribunal file by this method, please write to:-

Head of Records Management Services and Departmental Records Officer,
Ministry of Justice
102 Petty France
London
SW1H 9AJ

You will need to give your full name and address, the file details (including file reference, title and full name of defendant, name of the court/tribunal where the hearing took place, and the date of final hearing [or at the very least the year]) and explain the reason for wanting access to the document (i.e. your connection to the case e.g. as the victim or a relative of the victim) and any intended usage of the information.

Your request will then be considered by the DRO.

Requests for access to live (or current) files should be made direct to the court/tribunal where the hearing took place and the request will be considered by a judge at that location.

Part 5 What happens once the Application has been approved?

If approved by the HMCTS Data Access Panel the Data Access Panel Secretariat will advise you and your business sponsor that the Application has been approved. Then, if required, Records Management Services will then grant a PAA for the work you wish to undertake. Your business Area sponsor will provide you with letters of introduction and authorisation to take to the courts/tribunals.

Please remember that if you were granted a PAA you must send a copy of your published research to the Ministry of Justice Records Management Services unit and the DAP secretariat.    

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