Academic courts for the justice sector?

12 November 2013

A few weeks ago I defended my PhD study on how we can develop law as sharing rules: straightforward rules that facilitate dispute resolution by establishing a concrete fair share of value, damages or tasks.

My study covered the broad range from fundamental research (using experimental research methods and systematic literature reviews), to design studies, to testing in practice. Parallel to this, I developed concrete applications. While I engaged in all these types of research and development activities, I came to realise that the justice sector can learn much from medicine and the health care sector.

We already do to some extent. Maybe because the law faculty and medicine faculty shared a building at the oldest European university (in Bologna) and were closely connected.

Just like law and the legal profession, medicine and the medical profession traditionally were seen as an art. As a matter of practical reason. Education mostly consisted of mastering general principles and rules and – on the basis of anecdotal evidence captured in case studies - learn how they can be applied. So in a way medical school was much like law school that emphasises legal principles, general norms, case law applied to the concrete circumstances of a given case.

In the mid 1990’s, a shift emerged in medicine. Practice got rationalised. Gradually, emphasis was put on developing effective practices rather than on discussing principles. On what works.

This new paradigm of evidence-based medicine made professionals more effective. Less case-by-case decision-making on the basis of general rules, principles and authority. Decision-making takes place on the basis of robust professional knowledge, conveyed through user-friendly professional tools. Tools that are continuously and systematically scrutinised.

During the past years, justice professionals increasingly aspire to work evidence-based as well. This probably started in the criminal justice system where research systematically examined what works in prevention and corrections. Later other domains followed, with subdisciplines like civilology studying how private law works in real life. These approaches help us to develop more effective rules, procedures and interventions.

But where can we test them? Systematically assess their impact? And collect data about their broader effects on general population? There is no such place where we can implement rules, procedures, and interventions in a controlled environment, or even run a randomised controlled trial.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, academic hospitals have been the workplaces for academic research and education in medicine and health care. Where practitioners and academics very closely work together as colleagues. And they collect data that helps them learn a lot about diseases and ways to cure them. Where they experiment with different treatments and figure out what is needed to make medical interventions work.

In addition, academic hospitals have a development function. Professionals working here test and develop more effective and affordable pills and potions. They design better operation rooms that increase hygiene. And draft protocols based on the best evidence available so we all get the most effective treatment.

Imagine we would have something like an academic court, justice workplace or laboratory.

A place where justice delivery professionals, justice process designers and justice researchers work shoulder to shoulder, as colleagues. Where we could test new procedures and rules. Assess their impact on the quality of procedures and outcomes (as experienced by clients, lawyers and judges). And on the costs for parties and society. Where we could collect and analyse data so we would better learn how justice is experienced by people.

I think HiiL comes a bit close to this. We engage in research studies and regularly publish the results in trend reports, at a policy level we provide advice on strategies based on innovations, we design and test new justice processes in our justice innovation lab, and we measure and assess the impact of all of these.

It would be great of we could have a true academic court that people could go to and opt for a more experimental "treatment".