Family law deals with legal matters that affect families. For instance, family law deals with separation and divorce, child custody arrangements, child adoption and surrogacy. Family law also provides protection for children or adults in crisis; for instance, when a child is abused by a parent, or when an adult is abused by a spouse or partner.
Defining the Family
The definition of "family" is much broader than it used to be. Previously the term has referred mainly to a family group of two parents, their children, and their extended family. In the modern world the definition is much broader, and families often include members who are not related by blood or marriage. A modern family might consist, for example, of two same-sex parents and their adopted children. Family law continues to modernise to ensure that families of all kinds receive equal protection.
Matters of Family Law
The most common matters that are dealt with in family law involve marriage and long-term relationships, and related issues such as pre-nuptial agreements, separation and divorce, and custody and financial arrangements. However, family law deals with many other issues as well; in particular, those relating to the protection and care of children, the elderly, and other vulnerable people.
Marriage, civil partnerships, and marriage-like relationships come under matrimonial law, which is a branch of family law. Also included are matters relating to these relationships: pre-nuptial agreements, cohabitation agreements, separation and divorce, asset distribution, and financial arrangement and settlements. Essentially, matters relating to setting up the legal parameters of a relationship, and matters relating to the dissolution of a relationship.
Family law also includes matters relating to the welfare of children, including adoption, child custody arrangements, and child access arrangements.
Family law protects adults who are victims of domestic violence. One way is the non-molestation order, which protects a victim from abusive behaviour. Another is the occupation order, which evicts an abusive partner from the home.
Sometimes, the law steps in to advocate for people who are too young or otherwise unable to advocate for themselves. For instance, the Court of Protection can appoint a guardian to advocate for a child or other vulnerable person.
In public family law matters public authorities advocate for the welfare of a child or other vulnerable person. Most often these cases involve children who are neglected or abused, where a local authority petitions the court to protect the child.
Processes and Procedures in Family Law
Most family matters and disputes are resolved outside of the courthouse. One reason for this is simply that most people prefer to avoid the court system when possible. Another reason is that the law requires that people try to resolve family disputes in other ways before involving the court system. For instance, in cases of divorce or separation where a couple cannot agree on asset distribution or child custody arrangements, they must attempt to resolve their problems out of court first.
In family law, the first step of dispute resolution is typically an informal negotiation between the two disputing parties. For instance, this might include an informal meeting or exchange of letters. If this informal negotiation doesn’t result in a resolution, there are some alternatives, such as mediation and collaborative law.
Mediation is a more structured and formal negotiation method, where the disputing parties and their solicitors meet with a trained mediator. The mediator facilitates discussion and resolution to help the parties reach an agreement. Mediation is an effective method of dispute resolution but since the mediator cannot make legally binding decisions, there is no guarantee that all issues will be resolved.
In collaborative law, the goal is to arrive at outcomes that all parties are satisfied with. Each party engages a family law solicitor trained in collaborative law processes, and all parties meet one or more times to discuss the issues. At the end of the process the parties involved sign legally binding documents to confirm what agreements are made.
When family law matters can’t be solved outside of the court system they’re dealt with by the family division of the high court or county court. This process begins when one party applies for a court order. Once the court order is received a hearing date is set. At the hearing both parties have a chance to make their case, and then a judge makes a legally binding decision.