Mapping Paths to Family Justice

1 June 2011 - 30 June 2014

Awarded to: Professor  Anne Barlow

Co-investigators: Dr Janet Smithson

Research partners: Professor Rosemary Hunter (University of Kent)

Funding awarded to Exeter £ 412,963

Sponsor(s): Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

About the project

There is widespread perception that the family justice system is in crisis and that escalating demands on family court and legal aid resources cannot be met. In this context, successive governments have promoted mediation as a preferred means of resolving family disputes in court. As we go into an era of public funding cuts and economic austerity, diversion away from the family courts is likely to be further encouraged. Mediation is, however, strongly challenged by two alternative forms of out-of court family dispute resolution; the traditional negotiation between the parties’ solicitors, which appears to be the default option for most parties; and a relative newcomer, collaborative law, in which the parties and their solicitors work together to reach a resolution against a background commitment by all participants not to resort to court proceedings.

The relative merits of these alternatives have never been investigated. This project seeks to do so, and thus to provide an evidence base to inform future decisions by policy-makers, funders, practitioners, and disputing couples. It will focus on 1. How widely each process is actually used and how embedded it has become in the public mind as a means of resolving family disputes; 2. How positive and negative people’s experiences of the different processes have been in the short and longer term;  3. What norms of family dispute resolution are embedded in different alternatives; and 4. Whether particular alternatives are more or less appropriate for particular kinds of cases or parties.
The major conceptual contribution of the research will be its focus on the norms of family dispute resolution (such as child welfare, equality, rights or fault) that fare best within each dispute resolution process. Dewar (1998) has highlighted the fact the family law incorporates a plurality of (sometimes competing) policies and standards for decision-making. The norms to be applied when a court decides a particular family law case are relatively clear, but in out-of-court dispute resolution, a range of normative expectations may be brought to the table by the parties, and may be promoted by the lawyers to mediators involved. The normative outcomes of family dispute resolution processes matter because of their fairness or otherwise to the parties, their impact of the parties’ children, and the commitment of public funds to these processes.

The findings of this project will be disseminated through a project website, an end-of-project conference, and range of papers and published material. We will constitute an Advisory Group for the project, consisting of academics and members of key stakeholders organisations, which will assist with recruitment of practitioner participants in Phase two (interviews), as well as with dissemination and impact-generation strategies.