From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 22/02/2011.
Meeting of Minds
EXCLUSIVE! The words ‘interesting’ and ‘conference’ aren’t always mutually exclusive, reveals Marilyn Stowe
Like many family law practitioners, I am conference-hardened. Some family law conferences are interesting; other times, trying to keep a straight face, I have discreetly elbowed fellow solicitors awake. I have also helped to organise conferences, so I know it’s hard work and the unexpected can happen. One such was a Law Society conference a few years ago, which was almost hijacked by Fathers4Justice. The former children’s minister Margaret Hodge was taking part in a question and answer session with 250 family lawyers, when she was approached by two Fathers4Justice members who were posing as lawyers, and slapped in handcuffs.
These days, such antics are seldom seen – to the organisers’ relief. But some law conferences stand out, even in the absence of podium-storming activists. Earlier this month I attended a conference that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. It is something of a well-kept secret. (Or at least, it was…)
It is the University of Staffordshire Law School’s Annual Family Law Conference, chaired by Dr Sue Jenkinson, and it is a jewel of a day. The attendees include students and academics, the odd solicitor and even a Lord Justice of Appeal, and I am singling it out because I’m sure they would love to see more solicitors there next year. Although it is billed as a conference, I would rather describe it as a symposium: including the speakers there are about 40 people present, and everyone is encouraged to contribute.
When I walked through that door, I knew I was in for a brainteaser of a day and was happy to sit in the back row and become a student again. The conference theme was “The Modern Family”, and the speakers included Professor Lizzie Cook of the Law Commission. Lord Justice Wilson wound up the day with his “View from the Bench”. He has supported the conference since it was started by its most stalwart supporter, Professor Chris Barton, 15 years ago.
Something that sets this conference apart is the atmosphere, which crackles. Attendees are kept on their toes with academic and judicial intervention, and the day passes in a flash. Perhaps it helps that this conference takes place at the weekend. I happily drove 90 minutes each way; other attendees travelled from overseas. We gave up our spare time because we genuinely wanted to be there.
What of the content? Today’s modern family includes different groups of parents and their treatment in law across the world. We looked at “three-parent families”, when there is a dispute between the “two-parenting unity” and the biological father. We reviewed recent amendments in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, and their implications for the state’s perception of the “accepted family unit”.
For some, the law in relation to divorce settlements has gone too far, promoted too much equality between the sexes. Professor Lizzie Cook’s talk, on prenuptial agreements, was a highlight. From a carefully neutral position, she examined the positions for and against prenups – and all the options in between. As a practitioner, I’m against enforcing prenups without the safeguard of judicial discretion. At one point it was suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that if couples weren’t happy with the outcomes the obvious option would be… to sue the lawyers! This, of course, required stout denouncing; until then I was content to stay tucked away at the back.
What else? Well, I think we all went away with a lot of admiration for Lord Justice Wilson. Wise and brilliant, he demonstrated the qualities that have elevated his career to lofty heights. I wish him very well.
I left admiring the abilities and modesty of the people I had met. Overall I concluded that despite our best efforts, emotions will always be inextricably entwined with law, and emotional reactions cause all the complications. As those Fathers4Justice activists go to show, there is rarely a perfect answer in law that will satisfy everyone.
For those interested in attending the 2012 Annual Family Law Conference at Staffordshire University Law School, I will post details on my blog as soon as they become available.