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22 JUN 2010

Penny Booth: Guess the headlines

Guess the headlines

Penny BoothHeadlines try to say it all with the likes of 'Millions may lose out in reform of child benefit', 'Triplets for IVF Mum, 66', 'Breakfast clubs? No, get parents to feed children' and, not the least of them, 'Two Mums, two sisters... no Father'.

It really is 'guess the headline' time - as a prime-time game show it would be exciting. The second round in the telly game might be something along the lines of ‘guess the name of the newspaper' for bonus points. The really hard round would be to give a true summary of the state-of-affairs supposedly headlined.

The selection of headlines noted above came from a variety of print media over the last week and I won't be naming them for fear of legal action - no, just kidding.  

What is the point of this? Yes, of course, headlines are there to guide and persuade people to buy the newspaper, and not everyone wants to know the details. Ordinary, happy endings (perhaps few and far between in this area of law) rarely sell the newspaper. It seems to me that what the public know about family and child law is bound up in what they personally experience and what they read in the headlines. If they have had a divorce, or trouble with their children, or have experienced problems obtaining family welfare benefits then what they have are personal life experiences. That will, of course, affect how they feel about that aspect of law - and most influential will be whether they ‘won' or ‘lost' in our legal system - that is how it is set-up, isn't it, or is someone going to prove to me that it is not like that at all? What is also influential is whether or not they had a perfectly ghastly time of it, and you can bet that at least one side in any court dispute will say that they did have a bad time.

What else influences their view of this area of law? What people read and hear in the media, of course. What is influential here is the immediate eye-catching nature of the headline - I would not say that age was important in a story, but knowing that a woman was 66 when she had a baby certainly is noticeable and 'of note'.

I cannot imagine that the majority of people visit the many (and frequently informative) websites available to us in the UK - the majority of people on your train and bus, passing you in the street and standing with you to buy a newspaper will be more influenced in this area of law by the headlines that stare out at them rather than any carefully thought-out view of family law. After all, why should they be, they're not in the family law business, are they? Yes, I think they are ‘in the business', they are the business. In a way in which other areas of law do not touch people, family and child law does touch them; it is about how people live their lives, how they regulate their process of living, how they try to make personal situations better, how they attempt solutions to the most intimate problem areas of their lives, whether reproducing, managing their personal finances, taking out their angst on former partners (I did not say that what they did was ‘nice' just that it was personal) and finding out who got the money and how they can inherit instead. Of course, other areas of law are about people, but in other areas of life whilst solving problems about a consumer issues, neighbour disputes, being knocked down it touches them less crucially somehow. One might be able to avoid the law in other areas, one can hardly avoid family and child law.

So - what do I think we need? It would be better to have more real engagement by people with the everyday operation of law - preferably to take responsibility for their own lives. That way, the headlines won't be the only thing that is doing the influencing. I just wonder how...

Penny Booth is running the Great North Run for Age UK on 19 September, 2010. This is a half marathon and should she manage to complete the 13.1 miles then please coinsider giving a donation to Age Uk via www.justgiving.com/PennyBooth

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.

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