The Empirical Turn in Family Law
87 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2018
Date Written: January 22, 2018
Historically, the legal system justified family law’s rules and policies through morality, common sense, and prevailing cultural norms. In a sharp departure, and consistent with a broader trend across the legal system, empirical evidence increasingly dominates the regulation of families.
There is much to celebrate in this empirical turn. Properly used, empirical evidence in family law can help the state act more effectively and efficiently, unmask prejudice, and depoliticize contentious battles. But the empirical turn also presents substantial concerns. Beyond perennial issues of the quality of empirical evidence and the ability of legal actors to use it, there are more fundamental problems: Using empirical evidence focuses attention on the outcomes of legal rules, discouraging a debate about contested and competing values. Reliance on empirical evidence overlays a veneer of neutrality on normative judgments. And uncritically adopting evidence about present conditions without interrogating the role of historical discrimination that continues to disadvantage some families can replicate that discrimination.
Given the promise and peril of the empirical turn in family law, this Essay proposes a framework to guide the use of this evidence. The framework preserves space for debating multiple values and advises decisionmakers when to use empirical evidence, with particular attention to the dangers for nondominant families. The framework also recommends strengthening evidentiary gatekeeping and elevating the potential for legal scholarship to serve as a bridge from the broader research base to the courts. With this guidance in place, empirical evidence can take its rightful place as a useful but cabined tool in the legal regulation of families.
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