What is legal research for, if not to make people’s lives better? Research assistant Joseph Summers reflects on PLP’s Legal Research for Impact event.

PLP and the University of York’s joint ‘Legal Research for Social Impact’ event in May aimed to support legal researchers do just that by exploring ways to influence law, policy, and practice. Its speakers provided insights into how they have had impact through work in academia, campaigning organisations, and community-led groups. Recordings of the event are available on PLP’s learning portal

During the event, it emerged that the panellists were also, characteristically, thinking about a wider question, which is the subject of this blog: how should we decide whether and what difference should be intended by legal research?  

Community Autonomy or Community Leadership? 

Panellists agreed that when research is aimed at making a difference to people’s lives, researchers are at risk of imposing their own values on people who might not share them. The researcher might effectively be telling those they want to help “you must want this because, if I were you, it’s what I would want” and, by saying so, denying that those people know what is best for them. So, how can legal research improve people’s lives and avoid prescribing unshared and unwanted values? 

The answers we heard fell along a spectrum. Those at one end held the view that legal research should avoid value-judgements altogether. They maintain that legal researchers do not possess a full understanding of how the law is experienced within the everyday lives of the people it affects. Therefore, researchers are not usually equipped to say how the law should be changed to improve those lives. Accordingly, researchers’ focus should remain squarely on questions of ‘what is’, and leave the question of ‘what should be’ to affected individuals and campaigners. 

Those at the other end held that understanding how the law is experienced is a part of the ‘what is’ question and necessitates engagement with affected individuals. They advocate humility in recognising that the researcher does not know best and that, in service of understanding, their obligation is to listen and not to lead. An empathetic listener won’t shy away from the normative ‘what should be’ question, and accordingly will make recommendations where they are community-led.  

The difference between scholarship and activism 

Professor Tarunabh Khaitan,1 Head of Research at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, presented a view that was something of a middle ground. On the one hand, he agreed that researchers can ask normative questions in service of understanding but, on the other, he maintained that when researchers seek directly to achieve non-discursive community aims through their research, they do so to their detriment.2

The responsiveness of an activist exists in tension with the rigour of a scholar.

Professor Khaitan drew a distinction between the attributes of good scholarship and the attributes of good activism. He argued that good scholars are motivated, at least in part, by seeking truth and to disseminate knowledge. Accordingly, good scholarship demands rigour and time. Good activists, however, “imbibe the values of consultation, participation, embeddedness, and consistent engagement with [communities]” to respond quickly as those communities’ priorities change when problems emerge or recede. The responsiveness of an activist exists in tension with the rigour of a scholar. Therefore, scholarship that aims also to directly achieve community aims risks undermining its aims of seeking truth and disseminating knowledge. 

However, Public Law Project’s Dr. Jo Hynes,3 a proponent of community-led research, pointed out that community engagement can reveal faulty assumptions held by the researcher and, therefore, taking an approach which is too blinkered to outside issues can be to their detriment. Professor Joe Tomlinson4 agreed, arguing that impactful research should aim to answer a problem defined from the outset according to the people it affects. Arabella Lang,5 agreeing with Professor Tomlinson, highlighted that one must adopt the communities’ definition of harm and Dr. Hynes argued that this is most effectively done where “co-production and shared ownership [are] built in at the very beginning and linked back to the theory of change.”  

‘The aim is to empower clients and not takeover’ 

Professor Charlotte O’Brien6 from the University of York provided an example of how her community-led approach has enriched her own research. She runs the EU Rights and Brexit Hub which provides specialist advice and is also used as a rich evidence base for research into the administrative obstacles encountered by people making EU welfare claims. Professor O’Brien argued that her experience shows how legal research and casework can work in parallel to improve lives. It informed her view that legal researchers should look to the philosophy of legal practice where “the aim is to empower clients and not take over.”  

The event also showcased a number of other examples of how research can achieve impact by listening to community interests such as the work of University of Southampton Professor Helen Carr7 and CEO of English Rural Martin Collett8 to tackle rural homelessness;9 and of pupil barrister Ife Thompson’s10 work to combat race discrimination in schools.11 What all of these examples show, as PLP’s Mia Leslie12 put it, is that “together it is easier to push at a door that might otherwise be too heavy for a single person or organisation to open.” 

Research is impactful where it “clarifies, exposes and draws out truth, but it should be developed with beneficiaries’ voices centred.”

UCL’s Professor Jeff King13 cautioned researchers, suggesting that the veracity of submissions to policymakers can be doubted where they over-rely on the views of community groups or the organisations that represent them. He argued that the key value in making submissions to the legislative process is found in “supplying evidence, not views.” Evidence is best understood as information gathered using techniques familiar to the social sciences. It serves Parliamentary Select Committees who seek to respond to proposals. But he added that groups should “keep experts on tap rather than on top” because community organisations were more savvy about the practicalities of the legislative process.  

Getting the balance right between empathetic listening and technical rigour is difficult but, at the outset of the event, PLP CEO Shameem Ahmad14 offered a view on how that might be struck: research is impactful where it “clarifies, exposes and draws out truth but it should be developed with beneficiaries’ voices centred.” 

Concluding thoughts 

So, on the one hand, a community-led approach to research might distract researchers from getting at the truth of their enquiries. This is particularly true in doctrinal disciplines where the experiences of the community are less likely to provide useful evidence or challenge researchers’ assumptions. But, on the other hand, positive impact is better achieved by following and co-producing research with the communities that will feel the impact.  

Ultimately, it is for the legal to researcher to weigh up the benefits and challenges of community-led research because each piece of research will probably demand a different approach. Either way, in considering what difference they want to make, the researcher must be alert to the risk that their values and priorities might not be shared by those whom they are trying to help.

[1] Tarunabh Khaitan is Professor of Public Law and Legal Theory and the University of Oxford and Head of Research in the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, and presented ‘On scholactivism in constitutional studies: Sceptical thoughts’ at PLP’s research for impact event. 

[2] See further: Tarunabh Khaitan ‘On scholactivism in constitutional studies: Skeptical thoughts’ International Journal of Constitutional Law, Volume 20, Issue 2, April 2022, Pages 547–556, https://doi.org/10.1093/icon/moac039

[3] Dr. Jo Hynes is a senior research fellow at PLP, and spoke on the panel ‘What is Impact?’ at PLP’s research for impact event.

[4] Professor Joe Tomlinson is Professor of Public Law at the University of York and spoke on the panel ‘What is Impact?’ at PLP’s research for impact event.

[5] Arabella Lang is director of research at PLP, and chaired the panel ‘What is Impact?’ at PLP’s research for impact event.

[6] Professor Charlotte O’Brien is Professor of Law at the University of York and spoke on the panel ‘What is Impact?’ at PLP’s research for impact event.

[7] Professor Helen Carr is Professor of Property Law and Social Justice at the University of Southampton and spoke on the panel ‘Co-Producing Research’ at PLP’s research for impact event.

[8] Martin Collett is Chief Executive of English Rural and spoke on the panel ‘Co-Producing Research’ at PLP’s research for impact event.

[9] See: https://englishrural.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Rural-Homelessness-Intermin-Findings.pdf

[10] Ife Thompson is founder of Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health UK and spoke on the panel ‘Co-Producing Research’ at PLP’s research for impact event.

[11] See: https://eachother.org.uk/meet-ife-thompson-the-campaigner-taking-black-history-into-schools/

[12] Mia Leslie is a Research Fellow at PLP and chaired the panel ‘Co-Producing Research’ at PLP’s research for impact event.

[13] Jeff King is Professor of Law at University College London and director of research at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and delivered the closing address at PLP’s research for impact event.

[14] Shameem Ahmad is Chief Executive Officer of PLP and spoke at the ‘Opening Conversation’ of PLP’s legal research for social impact event.