Current DPhil in Family Law: Q and A with Charlotte Kelly

Charlotte Kelly

Current DPhil in Family Law: Charlotte Kelly


Why did you choose to do your DPhil at Oxford?

I chose to study at Oxford because I wanted to be part of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. I knew from my experience working as a research assistant at the Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden, which does a great deal of socio-legal work, that I wanted to pursue a DPhil which looked at how law is rooted in society. The Centre for Socio-Legal Studies here is one of the foremost and largest centres globally for socio-legal research, and I knew that I’d get the training in social science methodology which I would need, as I was coming from a blackletter law background.

What is the title of your research and what is your research topic about? 

My DPhil thesis is “How has law and regulation, both formal and informal, regulated key issues of female bodily autonomy in the transition from childhood to adulthood in Singapore from 1955 to 2018?”. I am interested in how legislation about the minimum age at which a female adolescent can engage in sexual activities and access abortion has changed from 1955 to 2018 and what factors have driven this. My work combines archival research, looking at the arguments made by politicians and legislators as the law changed, with interviews with politicians, lawyers and professionals working today with adolescent women in Singapore.

Who are your supervisors?

 My supervisors are Marina Kurkchiyan and Lucinda Ferguson.

How did you think of your research topic?

There’s a big unanswered question in law in all countries which is: when does a child stop being a child and become an adult? That question is crucially important, because the law grants certain freedoms and responsibilities to adults. In order to resolve the question, certain ages are written into law as the age at which a person can do certain “adult” activities. For instance, in both Singapore and England, the minimum age of consent to sexual activity is sixteen, but you have to be older than that to vote. The apparent arbitrariness of the age at which adolescents are given the freedom and responsibilities of adults, and how different freedoms are given at different ages, is something that I just find really interesting.

Like many students, when I started my MSt, which I completed as the first year of my DPhil, I had bold plans of comparing the understanding of childhood in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. I quickly discovered that that was perhaps a lifetime’s work, and I have narrowed down my research just to Singapore (though I still intend to do comparative work in other South-East Asian countries in post-doctoral work) and to focus on adolescents. In my MSt I looked at cases involving male adolescents in trouble with the law, so for my DPhil I wanted to look at the experiences of female adolescents and how the law regulates their bodies, which is something intensely private on which there’s been less research.

What stands out to you in the research you have undertaken so far?

There’s never a simple answer as to why a certain age is chosen as the age at which a young person can consent to sexual activity or obtain an abortion or marry. Why 16, not 15, or 12, or 21? Why have a minimum age at all rather than rely on the mental capacity of the individual child? Should the child be assessed mentally or physically? These are questions that lawmakers tend not to think about and often the explanation is simply tradition i.e. “this has always been the age of consent.” But when you come to look more closely at the law, you see that these ages and questions don’t have an immutable fixed answer but have changed, sometimes radically, in one society over 60 years.

I’m fascinated by the language which professionals use to talk about children. If you’re discussing a female 15 year old is she called a girl, a woman, a child, a teenager, an adolescent, a young person? Each of these words brings very different connotations. Do you talk about protecting her, or empowering her?

Why do you think this research is important?

I enjoy my research because it’s an area of law on which everyone has an opinion. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with people in taxis or eating at hawker centres. Usually if you tell someone that you research law, they go quiet, because law is seen as distant and complicated. But when I explain that I’m interested in the law about teenagers, and what is the right age for them to be allowed to do certain things, then people readily share opinions and stories from their own families. People often feel very passionately that children should be protected, but how they balance that with concerns about teenage behaviour, and their views about how adolescents should grow up, gives rise to unique opinions.

Even focusing on adolescent bodily autonomy in Singapore, which might seem a niche area in one small country, raises broad questions about how attitudes to adolescents have changed since the 1950s. By focusing on Singapore, a country which has seen very rapid economic development in the post-colonial period but continues to be a semi-authoritarian state, I’m able to look at the role young people have played in the post-colonial experience, which de-centres the study of childhood from the West. I focus on young women’s bodies, including the sexuality of those bodies, and again due to taboo and a sense that this is a private area, it’s one which is often passed over in legal research.

The story of abortion law reform in Singapore in the 1960s and 70s is quite particular to the country in that the law is very liberal, and reflects political concerns at the time about overpopulation. Yet Singapore’s experience is almost never discussed in the big debates which take place in the UK and US about abortion.

Interviewing politicians and civil servants is enormously fun,  because you can learn about the mechanics and personalities behind legal changes which you would never be able to see by purely reading the law. Talking to professionals is also illuminating for me as a lawyer because it reminds me that what is written in statute is not necessarily what happens in practice, and there are layers of regulation, institutional practices and individual attitudes to the law which can very much change how a young woman actually experiences the law.