Sunday, 11 August 2013

A Review of a Review of Ideas and Debates in Family Law

There are many ways that one can go about reviewing academic books, but a fairly standard approach is to offer some kind of summary of the main issues or arguments that it raises and then to comment on them in some way. If a book offers an analysis which is problematic, or if it misses or mis-uses evidence, then of course it is appropriate to criticise it. It's also reasonable to point to issues that the author might have looked at but didn't, if they are relevant to the book's content. But I think it's always helpful to keep in mind the realities of how books are written, and to look at what the author says he or she is trying to do when judging whether or not they have succeeded. Also, as my doctoral supervisor once told me, always end with the most positive thing you can honestly say.

With that in mind, I've been trying to decide if it's churlish of me to want to respond to a review of my book, Ideas and Debates in Family Law, that Claire Simmonds has written in the Cambridge Law Journal. It's a compliment when anyone takes the time to read and review something that you've written, bringing their intellect and experience to bear on something you've spent time on - and there are plenty of nice things that Simmonds says, along the way, about IDFL in her review. However, a couple of things have riled me a little, so here we go.

First, the book. IDFL is a small book of about 150 pages, split into eight chapters. It evolved from a series of seminars that I've been running for the last eight years in Oxford with undergraduate family law students. It is categorically not a textbook. It doesn't contain an overview of the law, and its aim is to put forward challenging ideas that open the reader's mind to different ways of thinking about family law issues. Consequently, as I say in the introduction, 'the topics chosen for discussion are sometimes quite narrow', 'many important family law issues are not covered' and 'the topics which are covered ... could have included a number of sub-issues which are either omitted entirely, or receive only passing mention' (pp 1 and 3). In other words, with 60,000 words and the whole of family law to pick from, I deliberately chose things that I thought were interesting and that offered scope for engaging with particular issues that I had been thinking about in my research and with my students over the last few years.

Given that starting point, there are two things that irritate me about the review. One - which is relatively common thing that people do in reviews, to be fair - is that a lot of the criticism comes down to saying that had Simmonds written the book, she would have written about other things. In particular, she would have written about more things. More on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), more on decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, more on the Hague Child Abduction Convention, more 'awareness' of prominent debates (?), more on public law and child abuse, more on domestic violence, more on same-sex relationships... 'as well as the existing chapters expanded'.

I mean, give me a break. You're basically saying that I should have written about the particular issues in family law that interest you, rather than the ones that interest me. Oh, and none of those issues is small, so I should also have written a book that was twice as long, which I don't think my publisher would have been too happy about.

My other niggle is about being told so many times that I have 'failed' to address issues or to notice issues. When talking about the welfare principle, Simmonds says that I don't talk about the ECHR, for example. Well, first, I do, a bit. I don't refer to the Convention by name, but my discussion on pp 117-119 is all about the inter-relationship between a welfare analysis and a rights analysis, and the way in which adults' and children's rights are, or could be, incorporated into the welfare principle. But leaving that aside, my gripe really is that, as Simmonds herself says, 'this issue has formed one of the central debates in this area in the last 15 years'. I agree, so why, in a short book which tries to look at less obvious issues, should I give space to that? Students will be getting that debate from their main readings and they don't need yet another summary of it from me.

Much the same reasoning explains my 'failure' to address various other issues. Same-sex marriage, for instance. I deal with it in a single footnote on p 75 - though, to be honest, that footnote really sums up the issue for me. There are two reasons for this 'failure'. One is that I don't actually find the debate about same-sex marriage legally interesting. It's a socio-political issue, but the legal aspects of it don't excite me much. The other, again, is that any family law student will know all the possible angles on this debate already and be seeing plenty of it in their reading.

Incidentally, this is what I mean when I say that the book should be used 'alongside a textbook' (cover blurb). Simmonds notes that family law textbooks rarely stick with black letter law these days which, she says, 'somewhat lessen[s] the impact' of IDFL as a companion book. With respect, that misses the point. I am perfectly aware that textbooks go beyond black letter law. My point is, IDFL is a companion to the modern family law textbook because, while it is true that the socio-legal sources that I draw on are commonly featured in textbooks these days, what I am doing with those materials is quite different, and the point is to let students see how we can use sources in less conventional ways.

Anyway, leaving all that aside, I'm quite willing to say that there are plenty of things that could be improved in IDFL. Nothing is perfect, and I'm open to criticism of the book, some of which has helped me develop my ideas so that if I write a second edition I already have lots of thoughts about what I'll do differently. But what I won't be doing is trying to write about everything, trying to force issues into my narrative that don't really fit there just so I can say that I've covered them, or writing massively more. That isn't what I set out to do, and it's not really a fair criticism of the book that it didn't do that.

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