Gillian Douglas: Obligation and Commitment in Family Law

AuthorAlison Diduck
Publication Date01 Jun 2019
Book Reviews
(Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2018, 274 pp., £65.00)
Family law must reconcile the public and private consequences of people's
desires and actions to create and sustain commitments to others, with their
simultaneous pursuit of individual self-fulfilment.
In this way, it is part of
broader demographic and cultural shifts in how we live our familial intima-
cies. So, while we may not have abandoned traditional `family' values such
as caring and obligation, we have found new ways to express them within a
cultural narrative of autonomy, `confluent love', and choice, and family law
has also found ways to express these potentially conflicting values. It does so
in expressive as well as instrumental ways; it is law as education and law as
coercion. In this book, Gillian Douglas shows us how family law over the
years has translated the social and emotional bases of family relationships
such as love, commitment, and obligation into values it can more easily
understand so as to effect this social and legal reconciliation.
Douglas is interested in how family law enforces obligations to care.
These caring obligations, she suggests, are created from the commitment we
undertake to a person or a life project. Viewing familial legal obligation
through the lens of care offers an interesting perspective. It sometimes
challenges and sometimes complements other concepts that may frame
analysis of family obligation, such as economics, rights or respect, and as the
thread that runs through the six case studies by which she organizes the
book, we see the way in which Douglas considers care alongside these other
concepts. She concludes a chapter on parenthood, for example, by suggesting
that the `decision whether to form or maintain a personal commitment to a
relationship with a child remains a matter of ``right'' and the right remains
that of the parent, whatever the rhetoric of the law may say' (p. 191). Any
legal obligation to maintain involvement with a child is imposed upon the
primary carer alone.
Douglas arrives first of all at `care' being the central obligation of family
law by highlighting the tension at the heart of family law between the power
and `cool' rationalism (p. 2) of law and relationships built and sustained by
affection, love, and emotion. Because law and emotion exist within different
planes, family law struggles to regulate or enforce affection or love. Instead,
family law regulates the expression of love (p. 3), which Douglas says it
1 A. Diduck, Law's Families (2003) 196.
ß2018 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2018 Cardiff University Law School

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