What is Family Law?

Family law is a branch of the legal system that deals with families and the legal issues they encounter. For instance, matters pertaining to marriage, separation, and divorce, child adoption, and child custody, are all within the field of family law.

Family law helps and protects all kinds of families

Family law is designed to help and protect families and family members, but these days the definition of a family isn’t the same as it used to be. Legally, the traditional definition of a family means a group of people related by blood or by marriage. However, this definition is no longer sufficient. These days, a more inclusive definition of a family might be people who are linked by blood, marriage, or close emotional ties.

For instance, a family unit these days may include two unmarried parents and their adopted child, which doesn’t meet that legal definition. And, an adult couple who are in a long-term relationship without children can constitute a family. This means that, in cases where the family doesn’t meet the legal definition, the law must make judgements on a case-by-case basis.

What legal issues fall under the family law category?

The most common family law issues are about the separation or divorce of a couple and what happens to their children and their financial assets. Some examples include:

Marriage: The family court can end a marriage via a decree of absolute divorce, meaning the marriage is legally ended, or decree of nullity, meaning the marriage is declared legally invalid.

Child custody arrangements: These court orders determine where a child will live after the dissolution of a marriage. They can be granted when there is a dispute over child custody.

Adoption: Granting an adoption order means all the legal rights and responsibilities of parenthood are legally transferred from the biological parents to the adoptive parents.

Domestic violence protection: Victims of domestic violence can apply for a non-molestation order, which grants protection from violent or threatening behaviour, or an occupation order, which orders an abusive partner to leave the family home.

Court of Protection: This family law court protects people who can’t make legal decisions on their own behalf. For these people, the Court of Protection can make decisions for them, or appoint someone to do so.

Public and private family law issues

When there are children involved in a family law case, it can be designated a private or a public case.

Private cases are brought by individuals. The most common private cases involve separation or divorce of a couple who has children, and involve the settlement of disputes relating to child custody and financial responsibility.

Public cases are brought by local authorities when a child has been abused or neglected, or is in danger of being abused or neglected. These cases may result in a supervision order, care order, or emergency protection order. These are designed to ensure the child is safe and well cared-for.

What can a solicitor do to help in family law cases?

Family law solicitors can help families in many different ways. While they can represent people in court, many of the ways they can help don’t involve the court system at all. For instance, a solicitor can:

  • Draft legal documents such as prenuptial agreements and cohabitation agreements.
  • Give legal advice to someone going through a separation or divorce, or to someone who is negotiating a child custody arrangement.
  • Give advice during a mediation or collaborative law negotiation.
  • Help someone apply for a financial order to distribute marriage assets.
  • Help an individual or couple apply for an adoption order.
  • Help a victim of domestic abuse apply for a protection order.

Legal processes involved in family law

While there are several courts that can hear family cases, the family legal system is designed to help families resolve their disputes out of court whenever possible. One way this happens is that people involved in a family dispute must try to resolve the dispute via mediation or another alternative method whenever possible. If this doesn’t settle the dispute they can then apply to the court system.

Alternatives to the court system include mediation and collaborative law. Neither of these methods requires that a legally-binding outcome be achieved. Instead, they are intended to provide a neutral forum where the disputing parties can come to an agreement.

In mediation, a trained mediator meets with the disputing parties to help them solve their dispute. The mediator is a neutral individual who ensures that everyone involved understands their rights and responsibilities, and has all the information they need to make decisions for themselves.

In collaborative law, each party involved in the dispute has their own solicitor. The disputing parties and their solicitors have one or more meetings to discuss the dispute and try to resolve it.

Legal aid for family law cases

Legal aid is generally not available in family law cases, but there are exceptions. For instance, someone who is a victim of domestic abuse, or who has a disability that prevents them representing themselves in court, may qualify for legal aid.