This course focuses on the legal regulation of individuals’ intimate personal and family lives. The fact that the definition of ‘family’ itself is both highly contested and much assumed offers some insight into the hotly contested nature of much of Family Law.
Studying Family Law often involves taking a legal concept or underpinning idea with which most have some familiarity from daily life, such as marriage, divorce, parenthood, or children’s rights, and then exploring exactly how the law regulates that subject and why. Key issues are examined within their historical, social, economic, and theoretical context. For example, what is the purpose of the consanguinity restrictions on marriage and should those have been extended to civil partnership? What does it mean to say a child is a rights-holder? If we cannot offer a coherent account, is there no such thing as ‘children’s rights’? Why do so many people believe the ‘common law marriage myth’? Should the courts and Parliament care that these people think that legal benefits and obligations exist when they do not? The syllabus lists the precise topics covered.
Our focus is on the substantive law, though an awareness of the family justice system in practice adds an important additional perspective to key debates. We currently examine through essay questions only so as to enable students the opportunity to devote sufficient attention to the interplay between law and the larger social and policy issues that are critical to an in-depth understanding of the Family Law field.
Family law is inter-disciplinary in terms of the range of materials students are expected to read and the nature of the arguments and debates with which students are expected to engage. This includes working with social science research, government publications, and non-government public and social policy materials. Family law involves an examination of statutory law, which is more extensive than in many other subjects.
Property law and trusts law are relevant to discussing the legal position of relationships outside of marriage and civil partnership. Students may find the background from having studied these as part of their core Land Law and Trusts courses useful, though the Family Law perspective is distinctive. Underlying conceptual ideas and a little substantive detail covered in Contract Law are also relevant to private ordering and adult intimate relationships more generally. Discussion of contentious issues in parenthood and disputes over who should raise and see children when interested adults do not live together (residence and contact disputes) includes children born as a result of fertility treatment, which is discussed from a different perspective as part of the Medical Law and Ethics course. The child’s capacity to make medical treatment decisions also features as part of both courses; in Family Law, it is one aspect of a larger discussion of children’s rights and children’s involvement in decision-making affecting them in a number of contexts. Examination of the legal approach to child protection includes limited discussion of public authority liability in negligence, as explored in Tort Law.