What is family law?
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What is Family Law?

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Walker Family Law
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It may seem to be a question to which the answer is obvious, but it is still worth considering exactly what ‘family law’ means, and what it covers. In this article, we explore the topic in detail to provide context and clarity to the question, what is family law? What is family law?

In the broadest sense, family law is of course that body of law that affects the family.

The next question, then, is: what is a family?

Modern family law has its origins in the nineteenth century. In the early years a ‘family’ consisted of a husband, a wife, and their dependent children.

Nowadays, of course, ‘family’ can mean much more than that, including cohabiting couples, same-sex couples, and single parent families. And all of these family types may have dependent children.

So how does the law interact with these families?

There are two main areas of family law: the first deals with relationship breakdown and its consequences, and the second deals with the protection of children by the state.

Family law and relationship breakdown

In connection with relationship breakdown family law essentially covers four areas:

  1. Dissolving the legal relationship – If the family involves a legal relationship, i.e. a marriage or a civil partnership, then that relationship will have to be dissolved when the parties go their separate ways. This is a legal process involving divorce, civil partnership dissolution or, unusually, nullity.
  2. Sorting out finances – When a relationship breaks down, financial arrangements will need to be made with regard to the future of both parties.

In connection with a divorce or civil partnership dissolution the purpose of the law is to facilitate such arrangements, and to protect the weaker party.

The law may also play a part in the financial arrangements following the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship, although here the law presently has a more limited role, essentially giving effect to existing property rights, and making financial provision for children.

Whatever the relationship type the law will also of course deal with the issue of maintenance for dependent children. For information related to divorce settlements and finances, please contact our specialist team.

  1. Sorting out arrangements for children – Here the law provides a mechanism to sort out future arrangements for dependent children, with whom they should live or spend time, if the parents are not able to agree these arrangements between themselves.
  2. Dealing with domestic abuse – Lastly, the law provides protection for victims of domestic abuse, sadly an all too common feature of relationship breakdown.

Family law and child protection

The other main area of family law is not necessarily anything to do with family breakdown, and is instigated by the state, rather than by a spouse/civil partner/parent, etc.

Where a local authority has concerns over the welfare of a child in its area, it may take action to protect that child.

This usually involves applying to a court for a care order, giving the local authority legal responsibility for the child, including making decisions as to where the child should live.

Obviously, making a care order is a very serious step for a court to take. It will only do so if it is satisfied that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, and if it considers that it is in the child’s best interests to make an order.

A care order may be accompanied by a placement order, placing the child for adoption. Other options include keeping the child with the family, perhaps under the supervision of the local authority, placing the child with foster carers, or placing the child with a ‘special guardian’, who will often be a relative of the child.

In conclusion: what is family law?

As we have seen, family law covers many different things in relation to families, and this article does not by any means cover all of them. We have not, for example, mentioned step-parent adoption, surrogacy arrangements and inheritance claims.

To answer the question what is family law? In short, family law is a wide topic, or group of topics, designed to resolve a range of family issues, in particular relating to relationship breakdown and child protection.

Ian Walker Family Law & Mediation Solicitors are award-winning family solicitors and are recognised as one of the leading family law firms in the South West of England with services covering family law & mediation, divorce, child law, and arbitration. For expert advice, please contact the team.