Speech by President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby: What is family law? – Securing social justice for children and young people

Eleanor Rathbone Social Justice Public Lecture Series 2017-18

Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946), the formidable President of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, was, from 1929 until her death, the Independent Member of Parliament for Combined English Universities. She holds an honoured place amongst the family law reformers of the middle 20th century. She played a pivotal role in the campaign for the equal treatment of men and women, fathers and mothers, which led to the enactment of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1925. She criticised the failure of the Money Payments (Justices Procedure) Act 1935 to implement an important recommendation of the Fischer Williams Departmental Committee on Imprisonment by Courts of Summary Jurisdiction in Default of Payment of Fines and other Sums of Money (Cmd 4649), an omission remedied by the Justices of the Peace Act 1949 and the Married Women (Maintenance) Act 1949. She was instrumental in the long campaign which led eventually to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1938. Her last great campaign, again successful, was for the payment of family allowances to the mother rather than the father. All this is described in attentive detail by Stephen Cretney in Family Law in the Twentieth Century, 2003, an account enlivened by vignettes of the opposition mounted to what we would now think of as very sensible reforms by such eminent figures as (the first) Lord Hailsham LC, the judges of the Chancery Division and the officials of the Ministry of National Insurance. She was, in Cretney’s judgement, perhaps the leading Parliamentary proponent of women’s interests. On all these matters she was on the right side of history, though, as I have remarked elsewhere, “So much of this is so distressingly recent.”

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