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Candidate No 60744

Research Proposal:

Title:

Behind Closed Doors:


The Lesbian Mother & The Family Courts of England & Wales

Background:

The focus of this research is the identification of possible disadvantages or

bias within the Family Courts of England and Wales upon the Lesbian mother. The

research will seek to assess the impact of the sexual orientation of the parent on the

custody decisions rendered by the Family Courts. This research is complicated by the

fact that the Family1 Courts of England and Wales are sealed and the records are not

available for public review2.

The motivation for this work stems from previous review of custody disputes

involving the sexual orientation of the parent in the United States3. The previous

work however was greatly unstructured and left many avenues to explore involving

the actual bias that may be present within the court system of the United States4.

However, the Family Courts of England and Wales provide a wonderful opportunity

to take this research beyond the participants in the process to question the structure of

the judicial process in general. The significance of closed courts is that the public or

other similarly situated individuals have limited information on these issues and

1
See: Lowe, N & Douglas, G, Bromley’s Family Law10th Edition, Oxford University Press, 2007.
2
Note: Contrary to the statement above concerning the courts in England and Wales the courts in the
United States do not have sealed files unless it is deemed necessary for the protection of the child or
individuals involved in the dispute. Therefore access to court documents and pleadings is less of a
barrier to research.
3
See Bottoms v. Bottoms 444 S.E. 2d 276 (Va. Ct. App. 1994) rev’d 457 S.E.2d 102 (Va. 1995).
4
Note: This statement does not imply that there is a federal or universal level of courts for family
disputes in the United States. Family matters are handled by the individual State courts of the United
States. Therefore there are possibly 50+ different states or territories to conduct research.
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Candidate No 60744

therefore a lack of resources to bring to the child custody hearings to ensure equal

footing amongst the participants5.

This work has real world relevance and as well is a means not only to address

bias within the courts when it comes to lesbian mothers but as well provide a research

framework to look at other under-represented groups. The most striking example of

the relevance of this work is a letter to the editor of DIVA in the May 2007 issue

which asked about the resources for a mother seeking to deal with a custody dispute

concerning her children as she sought to leave a previous marriage where her husband

was telling her GP and other individuals of her sexuality and seeking to use it as

evidence in the dispute6.

Research Questions:

1. Is there quantifiable bias present within the Family Courts of England &
Wales which would adversely impact the lesbian mother?

2. Does this bias stem from a larger social stigma or bias towards the sexual
orientation of the parent?

3. Does this bias impact younger or older lesbian mothers and as such is this
variance quantifiable with the chosen research methods?

4. Does the closed nature of the family courts provide an access problem to the
information sought and would research involving exclusively the parents be
viable if access to court files proves impossible?

5. Should the structure of the family courts be called into question concerning
access to information versus the overall benefit to other similarly situated
parents?

6. Does this bias appear to be a product of the parties in dispute or is it inherent


in the court personnel and actors in the child custody dispute process.

5
Note: Concerning the limited information available to lesbian mothers it would be inappropriate not
to mention the book by Harne,L and Rights of Women, Valued Families: The lesbian Mothers’ Legal
Handbook, Caledonian International, 1997. This books provides a beneficial resource to lesbian
mothers and does cover some aspects of the current legal state of Family law in England and Wales the
only limitation is that it has not been updated since 1997.
6
See Anon, KID CRISIS, pg 9 in Czyzselska, J, DIVA, Issue 132, May 2007, Millivres Prowler
Publication, website located at http://www.divamag.co.uk
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7. Which research method is more beneficial to discovering evidence of bias


within the Family Courts, qualitative or quantitative approach? Or is a
combination of methods more appropriate?

The desired outcome of this research is to flag possible problem areas within the

courts and to look for solutions to remove bias based on sexual preference or lifestyle

from custody hearings.

Research Methods:

The goal of this research is to bring a personal side to the custody disputes

between parties within the Family Courts of England and Wales. The most beneficial

means of bringing such a personal side to any socio-legal matter is provide evidence

through actual individuals involved and to find these individuals it will be necessary

to utilize both quantitative and qualitative methods. Through the use of a combination

of techniques it should be possible to gain access to the community of lesbian mothers

in England and Wales. However, it remains that one of the most challenging aspects

of this research is gaining access.

Access

Access to actual lesbian mothers that have had custody disputes or are in the

process of being involved in a custody dispute is essential to the success of this

research. However, there are many possible pitfalls that arise when trying to gain

access to such a group of individuals. The most obvious access issue as suggested by

many academics in the field of gender studies is the biological sex of the researcher7.

In the interest of full disclosure in this proposal the biological sex of the researcher is

male. This has provided many questions concerning access to lesbian groups and

7
Note: The reference to academics in the field concerns correspondence between the author of this
proposal and Leanne Smith at Cardiff, Carol Smart at Manchester, Judith Masson at Bristol, and
Gillian Dunne at Plymouth.
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lesbian mothers in general. I do not dismiss these claims however I would suggest

that through the use of gatekeepers and an online survey I believe locating

participants will not be a problem.

Locating Participants

To locate the participants of this research project it would seem most

beneficial to begin the process of identifying candidates through the use of a

quantitative questionnaire. The purpose of this questionnaire would be to identify

attitudes towards the courts system and as well identify immediately respondents by

their past, present, or future history within the Family Courts of England and Wales.

The questionnaire would be structured with mostly closed ended questions. These

questions would be used to gain demographic data on the respondents allowing for a

more focused approach on the regional spread of issues. The questionnaire would be

conducted via the internet8 and participation would be encouraged through the use of

advertisements in the UK lesbian magazine DIVA9 including use of regional media

outlets such as the Venue10 in Bristol. To further increase the number of respondents

the survey would be solicited to the various gay & lesbian parenting organizations

around the United Kingdom including but not limited to Pink Parents11 and the

Stonewall Foundation12. From the survey results the respondents would be selected

and then approached concerning their interest to continue the research in a more

8
See Riggle, E et al, Online Surveys for BGLT research: Issues & Techniques in Journal of
Homosexuality Vol 49 Issue 2, 2005 pg 1-21. This article provides insight to the benefits of
conducting online surveys as a means to encourage greater response amongst a under-represented
community.
9
Note: DIVA magazine is available for review at the following website http://www.divamag.co.uk it is
published and available across England.
10
Note: The Venue weekly magazine is published in Bristol and can be reviewed at the following
website http://www.venue.co.uk it is published for the Bristol and Bath region of the Southwest.
11
Note: Pink Parents is a parent support group of the United Kingdom to assist gay and lesbian parents
in issues concerning parenting and legal issues and can be found at http://www.pinkparents.org.uk
12
Note: The Stonewall Foundation is the UK organization fighting for equality and recognition of
rights of homosexual individuals and is concerned with issues such as civil partnership located at
http://www.stonewall.org.uk .
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participatory role13. The goal of this selection process would be to locate a total of 10

to 15 individuals for greater analysis.

Once participants have been located the research would switch to a more

qualitative14 approach building on the findings made during the quantitative

questionnaire. The goal of this next phase it to take the 10 to 15 participants down to

a total of 5 individuals for focused case studies. To narrow the group from 10 to 15

down to 5 focus groups will be used. The outcome of these case studies would be to

provide insight through the voice of these individuals which would bring to light any

evidence of bias within the family court system targeted at the sexual preference of

the participants. The overall goal of these case studies and the combined quantitative

questionnaire is to be able to present the findings to bring to light any bias and suggest

corrective action to remedy the situation.

Choice of Methods & Possible Limitations

The methods chosen above include an online survey, focus groups, and case

studies. The mix of both quantitative and qualitative approaches should be able to

produce a sufficient data pool for the research and also allow for a greater diversity

amongst respondents in their personal histories concerning the Family Courts.

However these methods are not the only means of gaining participants for the

research but they remain the most effective in my determination.

The benefit of the online survey as the first step in locating ultimately the 5

participants in the case studies is to gain access to a group of individuals of which I

13
Note: For more information on the benefits of participatory research consult Truman et al, Research
and Inequality, UCL Press, 2000 especially Dockery, G, Participatory research: whose roles, whose
responsibilities? Pg 95.
14
Note: For more insight and greater detail into qualitative research methods refer to Berg, B.L.,
Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences 6th Edition, Pearson Education, Inc, 2007.
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would most likely have barriers to access. The benefits of online survey as well are

the ease of access the respondents have to participate in the research. The internet and

access to a computer connected to the internet is more prevalent today than in the

past. With this understanding the use of internet survey would seem the most

beneficial to reach the largest number of respondents and as well to negate the impact

of the biological sex of the researcher. The online survey as well allows for the

respondent to respond to the questions when and if they choose to do so unlike

surveys which are handled by teams of interviewers across a city or a region. The

highly personal nature of this topic and of legal matters concerning children makes

the use of the internet the most likely to receive the most responses.

There are limitations with online surveys and these can range from false or

invalid responses to the overall lack of response to the survey. Even with the use of

advertising and media outlets such as magazines and foundations this can not

guarantee response. Therefore it may be necessary to offer some incentive to produce

greater response to the survey. This could range from a tangible prize to say a gift

certificate. With the use of incentives however comes the even greater issue of false

responses or incomplete responses and this must be weighed against the overall

benefit provided by using a financial incentive. Furthermore the use of an internet

survey raises questions concerning the handling of data and as well the access to the

data from locations off campus. These are mostly logistical questions however they

could prove to be an issue if the survey is brought down by the number of responses

or in other ways is attacked. The ultimate issue surrounding the use of an online

survey is the gathering of informed consent from the participants and at the same time

not dissuading the respondents with lengthy legal language and information. This

most likely would be resolved through a informed consent disclosure which would be
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completed by the respondent typing their name and clicking a button to signal

consent. There still remain issues surrounding the collection and storage of data;

however these will be addressed in the ethical considerations section of this proposal.

In the alternative another method of seeking research participants would be to

utilize gatekeepers and the technique of snowballing15. However with the previous

information gathered from members of the academic community that work in this

field it would seem that the use of gatekeepers and snowballing may prove difficult

and greatly hindered the scope of the research. This technique has many benefits and

it as well may be used as a backup means of finding participants if the internet survey

proves to be unable to produce a sufficient pool of respondents.

Once the internet survey is completed the responses will be quantified to allow

for analysis of the attitudes of the respondents to the family courts in England and

Wales. These responses will then be used to identify individuals according to the

level of interaction with the system to allow for a spread of 10 to 15 individuals to be

involved in more in depth focus group16 interviews. The use of focus groups can

prove to be very beneficial in light of the common ground shared by the participants

however it can also present a situation in which a more dominant individual or group

may take control away from the interviewer. The goal of a focus group is then to

identify the commonality shared amongst this smaller pool of respondents and then to

identify individuals for further interview and a possible case study. The focus group

will be conducted in a structured manner in which the participants will be asked

15
See Berg, B L Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences 6th Edition, Pearson Education,
Inc, 2007 at pgs 185-186. This section discusses the use of gatekeepers in qualitative research as well
as the technique of snowballing.
16
See Berg, B L, Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences 6th Edition, Pearson Education,
Inc, 2007 at pgs 144 – 155 focusing on the table concerning benefits and negatives of focus groups on
pgs 148-149.
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directed questions and allowed to comment. All participants will be allowed to

respond to each question and the responses will be limited by the interviewer. If the

focus group of 10 to 15 individuals proves to be unmanageable the focus group will

be split into 2 to 3 groups with the minimum number of participants being 5

individuals.

There are limitations to the use of focus groups and the most major limitation

is the lack of equal response time outside one on one interviews. However, this

limitation must be balanced with the need to discover the 5 individuals to conduct in

depth case studies. With Reference to the benefits and negatives of focus groups as

listed in Bruce Berg’s book Qualitative research methods for the Social Sciences, 6th

edition it is clear that the major issues surrounding focus groups is that the responses

gained are not individualized and as such insight into individuals is limited. As well

focus groups rely on the strength of the moderator to control outcomes and also if

different moderators are used the data gathered and the group dynamics may be

changed dramatically causing the results of the focus groups to not produce

identifiable participants for the case studies. These limitations do cause one to think

about the benefit of using a focus group as a means to find individuals for case studies

however the ability to have group responses and data collection outweigh the need for

one on one interviews at this stage in the process.

The final steps of the research involve the use of 5 participants in case studies

surrounding their personal interaction with the Family Courts of England and Wales.

The benefit of the “collective17” case study method in this analysis is to look for

shared events or commonalities in the five studies and this method has also been

17
See Berg BL, Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, 6th Edition, citing Stake
(1994,2000) pg 292.
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described by R.K.Yin as “more compelling, and the overall study is therefore

regarded as more robust.”18 The rationale behind my choice of case studies is that the

data gathered by either the online survey or the focus group does not provide that

personal insight gained by the overall use of case studies.

The case study method however is quite time consuming and as such it is

limited by the resources available to the researcher including but not limited to team

size, financial constraints, and as well availability of the participant. These are all

eventualities of using case studies however the biggest return on this research can be

gained through the use of a small core group of stories to bring about larger systemic

change.

Ethical Review:

The issue of research ethics remains a high level concern within the University

of Bristol and other research institutions within the UK. Therefore this research

proposal must anticipate the possible ethical issues surrounding research on human

subjects. The most appropriate means of reviewing the ethical consideration involved

in this research is through an ethics risk assessment. The risk assessment will involve

(1) identification of the possible hazards involved in the project, (2) identify who

might be harmed, (3) consideration of means to control risk, and (4) proposal of

action to remove the risk19.

18
See Berg BL, Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, 6th Edition, citing Yin (2003,
p.46) pg 292.
19
These risk assessment criteria are provided by the University of Bristol, Faculty of Law Research
Ethics Committee and taken from the application form. Available on Law School intranet.
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Identification of Hazards

The possible hazards associated with this research range from personal injury

to a cause of action against the University and Faculty of Law. The biggest pitfall is

the handling of personal data and this is especially crucial when involving the use of

the internet and either in house or third party vendors of survey software. The reason

why this is such a hazard is because the majority of data to be acquired in this survey

would fall under the heading of sensitive personal data. This type of data requires

extensive informed consent on the part of the University as well as guarantees that the

data will be kept secure. The need for security surrounding the data collected as well

as informed consent is a result of the Data Protection Act (DPA) of 199820.

Violations of the act would make the researcher as well as the research institution

open to legal liability for non-compliance with the Act. The biggest issue when it

comes to personal risk on the part of participants or the research author is the activity

involved with the research that would not otherwise be undertaken. However, this

activity is not dissimilar to the risks that are presented in day to day life.

Who could be harmed?

The individuals and organizations that might be harmed by this research

include the participants and the University. The participants could be harmed by this

research if there are issues with the security of the data collected as well as possible

harassment if the identities of the participants were made public.

Where the University and the researchers are concerned the harm could be

substantial if the ethical protocols are not followed according to the research

20
See Data Protection Act 1998 available at http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1998/19980029.htm#aofs
accessed on 22 June 2007.
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guidelines or where the third party or in-house provider of data storage and analysis

fails to maintain the security of the data.

Risk Control & Proposed Actions

The largest risk in this research is maintaining the security of the data as well

as the anonymity of the participants. These risks can be handled by fully

investigating the companies that provide online survey tools and as well by making

sure that all identification information is kept separate from the files that contain the

results of the focus groups and the case studies. The coding of individuals to protect

privacy will be done at all three levels of research (internet survey, focus group, case

study) to decrease the harm if anonymity is breached.

Conclusion

The goal of this research is to bring to light any bias within the Family Courts

of England and Wales as it relates to the specific case of lesbian mothers and child

custody with an overall desire to provide a model for future work on under-

represented groups.

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Works Cited & Consulted

1. Berg, B.L., Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences 6th Edition,
Pearson Education, Inc., 2007.

2. Bottoms v. Bottoms 444 S.E.2d 276 (Va. Ct. App. 1994) rev’d 457 S.E.2d 102
(Va. 1995).

3. Czyzselska,J., DIVA, Issue 132, May 2007, Millivres Prowler Publication.

4. Data Protection Act 1998 available at


http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1998/19980029.htm#aofs accessed on 22
June 2007.

5. Harne, L. & The Rights of Women, Valued Families: The Lesbian Mothers’
Legal Handbook, Caledonian International, 1997.

6. Lowe, N. & Douglas, G., Bromley’s Family Law 10th Edition, Oxford
University Press, 2007.

7. Riggle, E.et al., Online Surveys for BGLT Research: Issues & Techniques,
Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 49, Issue 2, 2005, pgs 1-21.

8. Truman et al., Research and Inequality, UCL Press, 2000.

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Advanced Legal and Socio-Legal Research Methods