Family Law and Child Law

Family Law

The family is the fundamental unit of society; families transmit culture, beliefs and assets between the generations and carry out essential tasks nurturing and caring for young and old. Family law regulates relationships with in families, between parents and children, between married or cohabiting partners and between the family and the state.

Family Law research at Bristol Law School

The family lawyers  Professor Judith Masson  and   Dr Emma Hitchings are members of the GW4 Network on Family Regulation and Society and an international Network, funded by the Leverhulme Foundation, New Families; New Governance with academics in family law, social policy and social work from the Free University Amsterdam, Notre Dame University USA and Melbourne University, Australia.

The research conducted includes, doctrinal analysis, contextual or policy related research and empirical study of the operation and effects of the law in practice. There are currently three main strands of empirical research on child law, financial arrangements on divorce and family law practice without access to legal aid.

Recent work on child law has focused on care proceedings. To date, three main projects have been completed:

  1. a quantitative analysis of care proceedings for the Department of Education and Ministry of Justice  Care Profiling Study (PDF, 746kB) ;
  2. an ethnographic study of parents’ representation in care proceedings, funded by the ESRC, Just Following Instructions? (PDF, 840kB) ; and
  3. a quantitative and qualitative study of the operation and effect of the pre-proceedings process for families on the edge of care proceedings Partnership by Law? (PDF, 2,614kB) , also funded by the ESRC.

 Earlier work has explored emergency action for child protection,  children’s representation in care proceedings, social workers’ attitudes to adoption by same sex couples and issues in private child law including, legal advice relating to domestic violence in contact cases.

Recent work on financial arrangements concerned two research studies commissioned and funded by the Law Commission. The first study provided much needed research from a qualitative perspective into how legal professionals draft marital property agreements, advise clients and deal with existing agreements. The second, follow-up study investigated whether demand for legal advice on marital property agreements had increased since the original survey. Current financial remedy research interests lie in the area of private ordering on divorce. Over 90% of ancillary relief applications are already disposed of by consent orders (orders reflecting the parties’ agreement, rather than being imposed following adjudication). Along with Joanna Miles from Cambridge University, the Nuffield Foundation has funded a study to undertake empirical research to discover the stage within court proceedings at which consent orders are made. In addition, the study will examine the characteristics of such cases and the content of consent orders resolved at different stages. It is hoped that the research will develop a richer understanding of private ordering of financial disputes in this jurisdiction and what factors help and hinder settlement of financial disputes following divorce in order to inform future reform and policy developments. 

In April 2013, legal aid was removed from most private family disputes, remaining only for some cases of domestic violence and to support mediation. This has major implications both for family lawyers and for individuals experiencing relationship breakdown, who may need to bring proceedings without a lawyer. Research for the Ministry of Justice, undertaken jointly with colleagues at Exeter and Cardiff universities is currently examining the impact of litigants in person in family proceedings.

There are strong research  links between the Law School and the Centre for Family Policy and Child Welfare  in the School of Policy Studies including joint supervision of research students.

Teaching and studying family law and child law

There are three undergraduate units relating to family law. Family Law, available to both second and third year students, introduces students to the law relating to parent and child and marriage, civil partnership cohabitation and divorce.  The focus is on real life situations and on how the law can be used to resolve disputes within families. Advanced Family Law develops students’ knowledge and understanding of a range of family law issues, particularly drawing on the research expertise of the staff. Topics include state intervention in the family, child protection and Human Rights, and property and finance after separation, divorce or dissolution. International Child Law examines how children are protected through both public and private international law, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Hague Conventions on International Child Abduction and Intercountry Adoption,  ILO Conventions No 138 and No 182 on child labour and International Legal Instruments on Trafficking. In addition each year final year students have the opportunity to write their Project on one of a number of topics relating to family law. Recent subjects have included: the right to be a parent; commercial surrogacy; corporal punishment; press reporting of the family courts and child soldiers.

Recent dissertations by students on the LLM and MSc Programmes have included: an empirical study  of the work of Independent Reviewing Offices;  an analysis of the development of arguments in ‘big money cases after White v White;  Ghana’s efforts to tackle commercial sexual exploitation; and the communications procedure under the UNCRC 3rd Optional Protocol.

Current PhD students are preparing theses on the Complaints process for children in social care;  the production and use of social work evidence in care proceedings.