The Sylvia Pankhurst Gender Research Centre was proud to welcome a mixed audience of delegates with a shared interest in family law to the first annual Family Law Conference on 4 March.

The Conference attracted legal academics, solicitors, barristers, mediators and students, all working and studying in the field of family law, and provided a relaxed and friendly atmosphere for discussion of topical family law issues.

The line-up of speakers included some exciting high profile names, as well as taking the opportunity to display some of the excellent family law research that is taking place at Manchester Law School.

Professor Rebecca Probert from Warwick University presented a fascinating paper about early feminists and their influence on the institution of marriage. She considered whether civil partnerships should be opened up to heterosexuals and wondered whether it might be better to offer a more radical alternative to marriage instead.

Lucy Crompton from Manchester Metropolitan University presented a devastating critique of the courts’ tendency to short change the long-term impact of career sacrifice when dealing with financial matters on divorce.

Barrister Lucy Reed provided an absorbing insight into transparency (keeping the public meaningfully informed about the work of the Family Court), concluding that much work is still needed in this respect. Lucy is the chair of the Transparency Project (http://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/), a charity aimed at improving the quality, range and accessibility of information available to the public both in the press and elsewhere.

Edwina Higgins and Kathryn Newton from Manchester Metropolitan University analysed the ‘parental involvement presumption’ that has recently been introduced into the Children Act 1989 and questioned whether it would have a detrimental impact of child autonomy by making it more difficult for a mature child to refuse contact with a parent who he did not want to see. Practitioners shared their experience of how the presumption is working in practice, concluding that it has not really made any difference to the courts’ existing pro-contact approach.

The Conference also hosted a mixed panel of academics and practitioners to discuss ‘Family Law in the News’. The recent case of Owens v Owens, where the wife’s divorce petition based on the husband’s behaviour was refused, was the topical issue that caused the most discussion, with practitioners concerned about the negative impact of having to make concrete allegations of fault in order to get a divorce without separating for at least two years. There was also some interesting discussion of proposals to deal with the problem of abusers cross-examining their victims in the Family Court.

We were thrilled with the turn-out. The speakers were very well received and it was wonderful to provide academics and practitioners with a forum to discuss the issues that matter in family law right now. We’re very pleased that so many of the delegates are already looking forward to more of the same next year.

Forging stronger links between the legal sector and academia is vital to ensure that research is relevant to current issues and challenges and that this research informs both teaching and practice. This is the first of many Family Law Conferences at Manchester Metropolitan University, which will continue to develop as a centre of excellence for family law.

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