Family law and personal life

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Family law and personal life


Eekelaar, J. (2017). Family law and personal life (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192543820.

Chapter Summary:

Chapter 1: Power

This chapter discusses the complex nature of power within family practices and law, examining how power manifests in social structures and family law. It references historical and anthropological perspectives to illustrate the evolution of family practices and the influence of power dynamics, including the roles of fathers, husbands, and institutional power. The concept of an “open society,” as defined by Karl Popper, is introduced, emphasizing the importance of individual autonomy and resistance to conforming to group demands solely for societal conformity. The chapter ends with an introduction to the “welfarism thesis,” which contrasts the historical instrumentalism of family law with a modern focus on individual well-being.

Chapter 2: Rights

The chapter explores the concept of rights as a counterbalance to power in family law, analyzing the nature and development of human rights, children’s rights, and the “best interests” principle. It addresses the evolution of rights claims within personal law and their relationship to broader societal values, highlighting the tension between individual rights and social power structures.

Chapter 3: Respect

This chapter delves into the concept of respect within intimate relationships and family dynamics. It covers various dimensions of respect, including care, nurture, religion, procreation, and respecting children. The discussion emphasizes the importance of mutual respect in maintaining healthy personal relationships and the role of respect in the legal regulation of family life.

Chapter 4: Friendship

Friendship is examined as a central value in personal relationships, contrasting with the institution of marriage. The chapter discusses the role of friendship in public and private life, the intersection of friendship with legal constraints, and the value of “full friendship” as a paradigm. It argues for the recognition of friendship as a significant social value within family law.

Chapter 5: Responsibility

This chapter addresses the concept of responsibility in personal relationships and family law. It distinguishes between historical and prospective responsibility, offering a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to be responsible within familial and intimate contexts. The chapter discusses legal and moral obligations and the implications of responsibility for personal and social well-being.

Chapter 6: Truth

The chapter explores the value of truth in personal relationships, focusing on the role of truth in kinship, identity, justice, and shame. It argues for the importance of truthfulness in maintaining the integrity of personal relationships and the legal implications of truth-telling within family law.

Chapter 7: Community

This chapter discusses the role of community in personal law, examining the balance between individualism and communal obligations. It addresses issues such as cultural diversity, the rights and obligations of communities, and the legal responses to these challenges. The chapter emphasizes the importance of caring communities in supporting personal relationships and the legal frameworks that govern them.


The book concludes with a synthesis of the themes discussed in previous chapters, offering a framework for understanding the interplay between power, rights, respect, friendship, responsibility, truth, and community in family law. It argues for a balanced approach that respects individual autonomy while recognizing the importance of social structures and communal values in personal relationships.

Key Concepts:

  1. Power Dynamics in Family Law:
  • Power is a central theme in family law, influencing how relationships are governed and how laws are applied.
  • Historical perspective: Power dynamics have shifted from patriarchal structures to more balanced considerations of individual rights.
  • Modern context: Power is counterbalanced by the presence of individual rights, including human and children’s rights.
  1. Individual Rights and Welfare:
  • Rights act as a countervailing force to power, ensuring that individual interests are protected within family law.
  • The “best interests” principle is crucial in determining the welfare of children.
  • Development of human rights: Personal law has evolved to include a wide range of rights claims, impacting family law significantly.
  1. Respect in Personal Relationships:
  • Respect is vital for maintaining healthy personal relationships.
  • The concept of respect encompasses care, nurture, religion, procreation, and the treatment of children.
  • Legal frameworks: Laws should reflect the need for respect in familial and intimate relationships.
  1. Friendship and its Legal Recognition:
  • Friendship is explored as a significant value that should be recognized in family law.
  • Contrast with marriage: The legal system often prioritizes marriage, but friendship also holds profound social value.
  • Full friendship: Considered a paradigmatic value, worthy of legal acknowledgment.
  1. Responsibility in Family Law:
  • The notion of responsibility includes both historical and prospective aspects.
  • Historical responsibility: Refers to obligations arising from past actions.
  • Prospective responsibility: Involves duties anticipated in future actions.
  • Legal and moral obligations: Laws must balance these responsibilities to promote personal and social well-being.
  1. Truth in Personal Relationships:
  • Truth is essential for the integrity of personal relationships and justice within family law.
  • Themes of kinship, identity, justice, and shame are linked to the value of truth.
  • Legal implications: Ensuring truthfulness can prevent manipulation and support fair legal outcomes.
  1. Community and Family Law:
  • The role of community is critical in shaping personal law.
  • Balancing individualism and communal obligations: Laws must navigate these tensions to support diverse family structures.
  • Cultural diversity: Legal responses to cultural diversity should respect individual rights while acknowledging communal values.
  • Caring communities: Communities play a vital role in supporting personal relationships, and legal frameworks should reflect this.
  1. Welfarism Thesis:
  • The evolution from instrumentalism to welfarism in family law marks a shift towards prioritizing individual well-being.
  • Instrumentalism: Early family law focused on maintaining social structures, often at the expense of individual interests.
  • Welfarism: Modern family law emphasizes the welfare of individuals, particularly vulnerable members like children and spouses.
  1. Open Society and Legal Governance:
  • The concept of an “open society” underpins the book’s approach to family law, emphasizing individual autonomy and resistance to conforming solely for societal stability.
  • Open society principles: Laws should be subject to argument and should not impose constraints based on external preferences without consideration of individual rights.

These key concepts provide a comprehensive understanding of the themes explored in Family Law and Personal Life. They highlight the evolution of family law, the balance between individual rights and social structures, and the importance of values such as respect, friendship, responsibility, truth, and community in shaping legal frameworks.

Critical Analysis:

  1. Evolution of Family Law:
  • Family Law and Personal Life presents a thorough examination of the evolution from patriarchal and instrumentalist approaches to a welfarist and rights-based framework. The historical perspective is essential for understanding current practices, but the book effectively critiques how these historical practices have lingering effects.
  • The shift towards welfarism reflects broader societal changes towards recognizing individual autonomy and rights. However, Eekelaar critiques the limitations and challenges of implementing these principles consistently within legal frameworks.
  1. Balancing Individual and Collective Interests:
  • Eekelaar’s analysis of the “open society” concept highlights the tension between individual autonomy and societal norms. This tension is central to many legal disputes in family law, such as cases involving cultural practices or the best interests of children.
  • The book argues for a nuanced approach that respects individual rights while acknowledging the importance of social structures. This balance is complex and context-dependent, requiring careful judicial interpretation and legislative frameworks.
  1. Rights and Power Dynamics:
  • The exploration of rights as a countervailing force to power is a critical theme. Eekelaar emphasizes the importance of rights in mitigating power imbalances within families, such as those between parents and children or between spouses.
  • However, the implementation of rights-based approaches can be inconsistent. For example, the principle of children’s rights and welfare often clashes with parental rights and cultural values, leading to challenging legal dilemmas.
  1. Conceptual Clarity and Practical Application:
  • Eekelaar’s conceptual discussions on respect, friendship, responsibility, and truth are insightful and provide a robust theoretical framework. These concepts are essential for understanding the moral and ethical dimensions of family law.
  • The practical application of these concepts in legal settings, however, can be challenging. The book acknowledges that while these values are aspirational, their integration into legal practice requires ongoing interpretation and adaptation.
  1. Cultural Diversity and Legal Pluralism:
  • The book’s discussion on cultural diversity and legal pluralism is particularly relevant in today’s globalized society. Eekelaar highlights the need for legal systems to adapt to diverse cultural practices while maintaining core human rights principles.
  • This is a contentious area, as it involves reconciling potentially conflicting values and practices. Eekelaar’s analysis suggests that a flexible, context-sensitive approach is necessary, but this can be difficult to achieve in practice.
  1. Critique of Welfarism:
  • While welfarism represents a significant advance over instrumentalism, Eekelaar critiques its limitations. The book argues that welfarism can still perpetuate power imbalances, as those in positions of authority (e.g., social workers, judges) determine what constitutes welfare.
  • This critique is important as it underscores the need for continuous scrutiny of how welfare principles are applied and the potential for bias or misuse of power.
  1. Judicial and Legislative Challenges:
  • The book highlights the challenges faced by both the judiciary and legislature in adapting to evolving concepts of family, rights, and welfare. Eekelaar calls for greater awareness and sensitivity to the complexities of personal relationships in legal decision-making.
  • This involves not only legal reforms but also changes in societal attitudes and greater education for those involved in family law.
  1. Future Directions:
  • Eekelaar’s work suggests several future directions for family law. These include greater recognition of non-traditional family structures, more robust protection of individual rights, and ongoing adaptation to cultural diversity.
  • The book advocates for a legal system that is both principled and flexible, capable of addressing the evolving nature of personal relationships in a fair and just manner.

Real-World Applications and Examples:

  1. Child Custody and Welfare:
  • The principles discussed in the book are directly applicable to child custody cases. Courts must balance the best interests of the child with the rights of parents, often navigating complex family dynamics and cultural considerations.
  • Example: In cases involving international custody disputes, courts may need to consider different cultural practices and legal systems while prioritizing the child’s welfare.
  1. Divorce and Separation:
  • Eekelaar’s analysis of responsibility and respect is crucial in divorce proceedings. Legal systems must ensure fair division of assets, spousal support, and custody arrangements, recognizing both parties’ contributions and rights.
  • Example: The role of prenuptial agreements in divorce can reflect the balance between individual autonomy (respecting the agreement) and ensuring fairness (considering changes in circumstances).
  1. Cultural Practices and Legal Challenges:
  • The book’s discussion on cultural diversity is highly relevant in multicultural societies. Legal systems must address practices such as arranged marriages, dowries, or religious divorce while upholding human rights standards.
  • Example: Legal recognition of customary marriages and ensuring they comply with national laws on gender equality and consent.
  1. Rights of Non-Traditional Families:
  • Eekelaar’s advocacy for recognizing diverse family structures is reflected in legal developments regarding same-sex marriage, cohabitation rights, and adoption by LGBTQ+ individuals.
  • Example: The legalization of same-sex marriage in various jurisdictions represents a shift towards acknowledging and protecting diverse family forms.
  1. Protection from Domestic Abuse:
  • The book’s emphasis on power dynamics is critical in addressing domestic abuse. Legal frameworks must protect victims, often women and children, by providing restraining orders, safe housing, and support services.
  • Example: The introduction of coercive control laws recognizes psychological abuse as part of domestic violence, expanding protection beyond physical abuse.
  1. Parental Rights and Children’s Autonomy:
  • Eekelaar’s discussion on children’s rights highlights the tension between parental authority and children’s autonomy, especially in medical decisions, education, and lifestyle choices.
  • Example: Cases involving medical treatment for minors, where courts must balance the child’s best interests with parental wishes and the child’s emerging autonomy.
  1. Adoption and Reproductive Technologies:
  • The book’s principles are relevant in adoption and assisted reproductive technology (ART) cases, where legal systems must consider the rights and welfare of all parties involved, including children, biological parents, and adoptive parents.
  • Example: Surrogacy arrangements often present complex legal challenges, requiring clear regulations to protect the rights and welfare of the surrogate, the intended parents, and the child.
  1. Evolving Definitions of Family:
  • The recognition of various family forms, such as blended families, single-parent households, and polyamorous relationships, reflects the book’s advocacy for an inclusive approach to family law.
  • Example: Legal frameworks need to adapt to the reality of cohabitation and provide rights and protections similar to those available to married couples, including inheritance rights and parental responsibilities.


John Eekelaar’s Family Law and Personal Life offers a comprehensive examination of the evolution and current state of family law, emphasizing the balance between individual rights and societal norms. By exploring key concepts such as power, respect, responsibility, and cultural diversity, the book provides a critical analysis of how family law can better serve individuals and communities. The real-world applications and examples demonstrate the practical implications of these theoretical insights, highlighting the ongoing challenges and opportunities in creating a just and responsive legal system for personal relationships.

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