by John Eekelaar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 208pp. Hardback. £35.00/$65.00. ISBN: 9780199213825. Paper. £17.99. ISBN: 9780199535422.

Reviewed by Justyna Sempruch, Department of Women’s Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario. Email: sempruch [at]


Grounding his discussion within the juridical context of the UK, but also drawing on a selection of international cases, John Eekelaar delineates a fascinating interrelationship between the legal regulation of our personal lives and the values of friendship, truth, respect, and responsibility. Rather than a detail-focused law policy analysis, FAMILY LAW AND PERSONAL LIFE offers a philosophical reflection on currently emerging family structures and practical applications of personal law, speaking directly into the interrelation between ideologies of marriage as a lifelong partnership model, as an insurance model with compensatory obligations, and a desire on behalf of each person for a marked element of independence. Plunged into this interdisciplinary debate, the readers are presented with comments on legal theory and its intersections with political evaluation of law, as well as cultural mechanisms of policy-making, most prominently the Foucauldian discourse on power relations. These carefully outlined intersections between law and broader understanding of social justice, such as parental responsibility and love, call, as the book argues, for a more sophisticated concept of care and friendship that go beyond juridical structure of policy-making. Following this, Eekelaar rejects the habitual policy assumptions about social homogeneity and historical linearity of the UK, speaking instead directly into the ethnic, cultural and class related diversity of the nation, diversity which is also taken as a foreground-background discussion of family law in general.

Eekelaar’s discussion begins with an argument on how legal regulation has always affected people’s personal lives despite changes in policy systems and institutional approaches to family. This debate is carefully situated within the context of philosophical liberalism, drawing on Karl Popper’s notion of ‘open society,’ which, as Eekelaar explains, is not dependent on a historical necessity in a Marxist sense, but, instead, necessitates intellectual liberation. Within such understanding of pragmatic idealism, the book moves on to discuss the legal regulation of gay and unmarried heterosexual relationships and how these are intertwined with the freedom of procreation and state supervision over the exercise of parenthood. Further, while analysing these complex juridical interrelationships, Eekelaar gives us a fascinating insight into the history of divorce law, as directly pertaining to parental rights and responsibilities to control and ‘manage’ children. Next, he discusses the place of religion in the family, separated partners’ rights, as well as freedom of children to determine their own destinies. Diversity remains at the core of Eekelaar’s argument, both as [*732] a political issue that needs careful juridical consideration and as a growing cultural complexity which makes juridical patterns within society less transparent than ever.

What I find most valuable is Eekelaar’s discussion of the increasing variety of family forms along with his claim not to underestimate the meanings of pleasure that remain instrumental in any exercise of friendship and/or partnership. In neglecting pleasure, as Eekelaar argues, we may be in danger of commodifying relationships, as friendship, and, hence, oftentimes marriage, are contingent on psychic realities usually ignored in policy and law discourse. Within this multiplicity of insights, Eekelaar discusses humanitarian benefits of welfarism, but also offers considerate social critique as a disguised instrumentalism, a regulatory mechanism limiting individuals in their capacity to make decisions pertaining to their lives.

More problematic are Eekelaar’s philosophical implications, which rather unreflectively rest on androcentric foundations of European philosophy (Aristotle, Plato). Although mentioning the uncomfortable air of paternalism within the male-dominated judicial system, he fails to constructively reflect on the establishment of male-centered law and judicial rights developed through philosophy which a priori assigns women secondary non-citizen positions. Equally, Eekelaar only marginally discusses the value of female domestic contribution, which, I believe, constitutes a prerequisite for open society. ‘Open’, i.e. liberal society, as an underlying premise of the book, remains therefore rather unexplored in relation to gender and actual power processes that Eekelaar sets to question. Nonetheless, FAMILY LAW AND PERSONAL LIFE brings together a complex blend of historical, philosophical and political aspects of family law, effectively setting out a framework for thinking about how personal law affects the most profound aspects of our lives and communities.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Justyna Sempruch.