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What Is Family Law? – Family & Matrimonial Law Explained

Family and matrimonial law is the body of law that affects families and the relationships between people in families. While matrimonial law pertains specifically to issues such as marriage and divorce, and others that relate specifically to marriage, family law in general also includes issues such as child custody and adoption.

Historically, the term “family” has been used to refer to people related by marriage or by blood, such as husbands and wives, their children, and members of their extended family. These days, however, what constitutes a family is a much broader definition, as the term can now describe people who are not related by marriage or blood. For instance, a same-sex couple who have adopted a child are not necessarily bound by marriage or blood in the legal sense, but they are no less a family because of it.

Family and matrimonial law includes a wide range of issues, including:

  • Matrimonial law involves matters relating to marriage, civil partnerships, and long-term marriage-like relationships; for instance, issues such as pre-nuptial or cohabitation agreements; separation; divorce; and asset distribution and financial settlements.
  • Any matters that relate to the welfare of children; such as adoption, child custody arrangements, and child access arrangements.
  • Cases that involve the Court of Protection, which exists to help people who are too young or otherwise unable to advocate for themselves. The Court of Protection can appoint a guardian to advocate for the person, or the court itself can act as an advocate.
  • Public family law cases in which a local authority becomes involved, typically because a child has been neglected or abused. In these situations the local authority may petition the court for some kind of protection order for the child.

Processes in Family & Matrimonial Law

Most of the time, family and matrimonial disputes can be resolved outside of the court system. One reason for this is that under the law, people must try to resolve their disputes using other methods before they consider going to court. And, most people prefer to solve disputes without involving the court. For the most part, the processes involved in family and matrimonial law are fairly similar.

In family and matrimonial law disputes—for example, the end of a marriage where there is a dispute over asset distribution or child custody—the first step is usually an informal negotiation. This typically means a discussion or exchange of letters between the disputing parties or their solicitors.

If this informal negotiation doesn’t end the dispute, the next step is an alternative method of dispute resolution: mediation, or collaborative law.

Mediation is a more formal method of negotiation where the people involved in the dispute meet with a trained mediator in a neutral place. The mediator is there to help them discuss the dispute and to help them reach an agreement they’re both happy with. However, the mediator can’t make any legally binding decisions, so mediation doesn’t always resolve the issue.

Collaborative law is a meeting or series of meetings where the specific objective is to reach an agreement everyone is happy with. For this process, both parties have solicitors who are trained in collaborative law, to help ensure they’re fairly represented and have all the information they need to make informed decisions. If the two parties can reach an agreement, they will sign legally binding documents that detail the arrangements that have been made.

The court system: If the alternative methods of dispute resolution are not effective, the disputing parties can apply to the court system for resolution. These cases are usually heard in the Family Division of the High Court, or the County Court.

To start the process, one party applies for a court order. For instance, if the issue relates to child custody, they might apply for a child arrangement order. The application is received and entered into the court system, and then a hearing date is set. The pre-trial hearing is the final chance to try and settle the dispute before the trial. If the dispute isn’t settled, then the date is set for trial. At the trial, both parties have the chance to give evidence, and can also call expert witnesses to give evidence. Once all of the evidence has been given, the judge makes a legally binding decision.

Even though the judge’s ruling is legally binding, it’s not enforced by the courts. This means that after the trial, it might be necessary to take more legal advice in order to ensure the judgment is carried out.

How Can A Solicitor Help?

Family and matrimonial law covers many issues relating to families, and while a solicitor isn’t legally required for all of them, there are many situations where their help is invaluable.

  • If you’re involved in any kind of family law dispute, a solicitor can provide legal advice and direction on how to proceed with resolving the problem.
  • A solicitor can draft a wide range of documents relating to family law. For instance, if you’re getting married or are living with someone, a solicitor can draft a pre-nuptial or cohabitation agreement.
  • If you are separated or getting divorced, a solicitor can help you negotiate settlement terms, either through negotiation or via an alternative means of dispute resolution.
  • A solicitor can advocate for you in mediation or collaborative law. Note that in the case of collaborative law you must be represented by a solicitor who is specifically trained in the collaborative process.
  • Help you apply for a court order; for instance a child arrangement order or a financial settlement.
  • If your family law case goes to court, your solicitor can represent you in court.
  • Help you complete all the steps involved in adopting a child.

Depending on the situation, some people might be eligible for legal aid for family and matrimonial law issues. In general, legal aid can apply in cases where someone has been a victim of domestic abuse, where a child has been hurt or threatened, or when someone is unable to represent themselves in court.