The Meaning of Home: A Chimerical Concept or a Legal Challenge?

Publication Date01 Dec 2002
AuthorLorna Fox
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 580–610
The Meaning of Home: A Chimerical Concept or a Legal
Lorna Fox*
‘Home’ is not an easy concept to pin down. Although the term is
instantly familiar, and the physical reality of home is an important and
omnipresent feature of our everyday lives, the legal conception of
home has received surprisingly little attention. The relative neglect of
home is particularly striking, however, in light of the substantial body
of research which has been carried out on the subject of home in other
disciplines. This article discusses the meanings of home which have
evolved from interdisciplinary research. It is argued that this research
could provide a starting point for the development of a more clearly
articulated socio-legal understanding of the meaning and value of
home to occupiers. It is suggested that a legal concept of the meaning
of home would be useful, for instance, when considering the conflict of
interests between the occupiers of a property ‘as a home’, and other
parties with ‘non-home’ interests in the property, for example,
creditors. This article seeks to identify some of the values of home
which might inform a legal concept of home, and so be ‘weighed in the
balance’ on the occupier’s side when decisions involving conflicts
between home interests and commercial interests are considered.
The concept of home appears to be in need of legal counsel. Although the
term is instantly familiar, and the physical reality is an important feature of
our everyday lives, the legal concept of home has received surprisingly little
attention. As laypersons we know that there is ‘no place like home’, that
‘home is where the heart is’, and that ‘a man’s home is his castle’. Yet the
ßBlackwell Publishers Ltd 2002, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
* School of Law, Queens University Belfast, Belfast BT7 1NN, Northern
I am grateful to Professor Norma Dawson, Professor John Morison, David O’Mahony,
Donal Sayers, and an anonymous referee, all of whom made helpful comments on an
earlier draft of this article. Part of the material also formed the basis of a paper at the
SLSA Annual Conference, 3–5 April 2002 at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and I
would like to acknowledge the constructive input of delegates in the Family Law and
Policy stream.
legal conception of home cannot be summed up so neatly. This is largely due
to the particular qualities of home: home is essentially a subjective
phenomenon, it is not easily quantifiable, and consequently the value of a
home to its occupiers is not readily susceptible to legal proof. These factors
present obvious impediments to the development of a coherent legal concept
of home. On a practical level, however, disputes over and involving home
are a constant and significant feature of our legal environment. If a legal
concept of home could be developed, it could be utilized to inform the
decision-making process where home is the scene or substance of legal
disputes. The imbalance between the prevalence and significance of home in
practical terms, and the relative neglect of conceptual questions relating to
home within legal circles is particularly striking in light of the fact that,
despite the apparently ‘unscientific’ nature of attachment to home, a
substantial body of literature has emerged concerning the concept of home in
the social science disciplines in recent decades.
This article discusses the meanings of home which have evolved from
interdisciplinary research. For the purposes of this discussion these values of
home have been grouped into four broad categories: home as a physical
structure, home as territory, home as a means of identity and self-identity for
its occupiers, and home as a social and cultural phenomenon. Although this
empirical and analytical research on the meaning of home to occupiers has
taken an interdisciplinary approach, the findings of this body of research
have not noticeably impacted on the legal domain, where little attention has
been paid to the conceptual aspects of home. The object of this article is to
consider whether the concept of home which has been developed in other
disciplines could be usefully employed in a socio-legal context, in order to
inform the major legal issues surrounding home, and facilitate the process of
developing a meaningful concept of home in law.
It is difficult to overstate the everyday importance of home in law. The
significance of land law as an ‘instrument of social engineering’, and
specifically of home as a legal entity is highlighted by the observation that:
All of us – even the truly homeless – live somewhere, and each therefore
stands in some relation to land as owner-occupier, tenant, licensee or squatter.
In this way land law impinges upon a vast area of social orderings and
expectations, and exerts a fundamental influence upon the lifestyles of
ordinary people.
1 For example, I. Altman and C.M. Werner (eds.), Home Environments (1985); D.N.
Benjamin (ed.), The Home: Words, Interpretations, Meanings and Environments
2 K.J. Gray and P.D. Symes, Real Property and Real People (1981) 4.
ßBlackwell Publishers Ltd 2002

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