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Many windows into the court: Socio-legal perspectives in family justice

  • Prof. Judith Masson
Friday 24 February 2017
Old Observatory
Sterrenwachtlaan 11
2311 GW Leiden
C 1.04

In the UK the study of law has traditionally focused on cases and statutes. Two assumptions underlie this – that what gets reported is crucial for understanding the practice of law; legislation operates as intended, creating and restricting rights and shaping behaviour. This approach results in an impoverished understanding of law and lawyers as social forces, which impact on society, a disregard for the diverse processes through which law operates and failure to engage with the experience of ordinary people resolving (or not) ordinary problems with (or without) recourse to law. Socio-legal studies have the potential to uncover the inner workings of the law, how it influences behaviour and decisions, for whose advantage, to what extent, and with what limitations.

Prof. Masson's focus is on contemporary family law, both aspects of private law – the relationships between partners, and parents and children and public law – the exercise of the state’s powers to intervene in families to protect children. Socio-legal studies are crucial to the understanding of these areas because the law largely operates in private, in meetings between lawyers and their clients, in mediation and in courts without public access; because practices are shaped by the emotive nature of issues and decisions, which cannot be reflected in law reports or statistical returns, and because the law is the everyday practice - the everyday practice is what the law is thought to be. Socio-legal research provides windows into the courtroom, interview rooms, foyers and beyond to provide understanding of law’s influence.

Of course, socio-legal studies is not all seeing – the windows limit and sometimes distort the view.  It provides the basis for answering questions about how the law is working through use of a variety of methods, chiefly analysis of records, questionnaires, interviews and observations. It is generally far easier to access documents than people, and professionals than ordinary people; and observation is time-consuming and subjective. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages; combining methods increases breadth, provides different perspectives and allows triangulation. Analysis and insight shifts the focus from the description of what is happening to the explanations of how and why, and beyond the subject of the study to more general understanding of the operation of law.

This lecture will draw on empirical studies to explore the question how changing the law changes practice, and why sometimes it does not. It draws on Prof. Masson’s early study of step-parent adoption (Masson et al, Mine yours or ours, 1983) and her more recent studies of care proceedings (Pearce, Masson and Bader Just Following Instructions (2011), Masson et al, Partnership by Law (2013)) and current work on Care proceedings under the PLO 2014 (which introduced a time limit of 26 weeks for these proceedings).

Judith Masson M.A., PhD, is Professor of Socio-legal Studies at Bristol University and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Science in the U.K. Throughout her career she has applied empirical socio-legal methods to studying of aspects of family law and highlighted the importance of empirical research to understanding how family law operates, and its limitations. Her empirical research ranges from adoption to wills and inheritance, methodologically from action research and ethnography to quantitative analysis, and has been undertaken in welfare agencies, lawyers’ offices and courts. For the last 25 years, Prof. Masson has focused on work relating to child protection using mixed quantitative and qualitative methods, with studies on: children’s legal and social work representation; social work with parents of children of children in long term care; emergency intervention to protect children by the police, social workers and the courts; court process and decision-making in child protection, parents’ legal representation in child protection cases and the impact of law and practice reform on child protection social work and the courts. Publications from this work include: Mine, yours or ours (1983), Wills inheritance and families (1996), Lost and Found (1999), Out of Hearing (1999) and Protecting powers (2008) as well as numerous articles and research reports. Alongside this work prof. Masson has been a member of the Judicial Studies Board, the Family Justice Council and a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs and Justice Committees, co-authored (with Professor Stephen Cretney) Principles of Family Law (Thomson 8th ed. 2008) and delivered courses on family and child law.

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