The scope of family law – who and what it covers

Apart from the family unit itself (see my previous post for a legal definition of the term “family”), the scope of family law widens to include unmarried couples and their children, if any. There are also some instances in which someone outside the ‘parent-child’ dynamic may become involved in family law proceedings. These include cases of adoption, or when someone other than the parent of the child wishes to have some rights in relation to the custody or guardianship of that child (usually, grandparents or the HSE).

In what way does the law have an input in family affairs? The scope extends to the creation and dissolution of marriage, and to any ancillary matters arising out of either of those two — but, in practice, mostly the latter — including the custody and guardianship of any dependant children, maintenance for spouses and children, domestic violence, the protection of the family home, division of the assets, etc. Of course, in respect of those ancillary matters, if the parties can reach agreement between themselves, the law will rarely have to step in. (One notable exception is where there are concerns over the welfare of the children.)

Turning to unmarried couples and one-parent families, the question of guardianship, custody, and access to a child may be a matter on which the courts have to decide if the parties themselves cannot agree. Where there are no children, a couple could still find themselves in the family courts if they were engaged, had bought a property together, and had since broken off the engagement. In such cases, the courts may be forced to decide what is to be done with the property (and, sometimes, with the engagement ring).

Why, if the parties were not married and, therefore, not considered a “family” in the legal sense, would such a matter end up before the family courts instead of a normal court? Because, to use a phrase commonly heard in family law, the property was bought “in contemplation of marriage”.

Thus, though the legal definition of a family does not extend beyond marriage, the scope of family law often includes unmarried couples and their children. However, it is worth noting that the rights and protections the law affords to a married couple are never fully extended to an unmarried couple. I will discuss each of these rights in turn in my next posts.

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