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History

Laws pertaining to marriage, divorce, and juvenile crime and misbehavior have appeared in religious texts and legal codes for thousands of years. The Code of Hammurabi (2270 B.C.), for example, discussed runaways and children who disowned their parents. In ancient Rome, the Roman Civil Code (529 B.C.) featured sections on marriage, adoption, guardianship, and parents’ rights. The Roman Twelve Tables (mid-400s B.C.) detailed how children were criminally responsible for wrongdoing and were required to face judgment by the criminal justice system—although punishments for certain offenses were less severe than they were for adults. In ancient Greece, divorce was common. Those seeking a divorce had to submit the request to a magistrate along with their reasons for wanting the divorce. The magistrate reviewed the request and ruled for or against the petitioner.

In the United States, “laws governing the family were enacted as soon as colonists organized political communities,” according to “Bringing the History of American Family Law into the Classroom,” by Michael Grossberg. However, the article goes on to note that “a distinct category of family law emerged only in the years after the Revolution. In colonial America, rules governing marriage, child rearing, illegitimacy, and other family relations were strewn across the legal landscape.”

Until the mid-19th century, family law cases in the United States were typically heard by general courts, but increasing caseloads and evolving views of “family issues” prompted some governments to create special family courts and family-oriented laws. Massachusetts, for example, passed the first modern adoption law in 1851. According to the Adoption History Project, the law “recognized adoption as a social and legal operation based on child welfare rather than adult interests.” In 1870, the first law book on “domestic relations” was published, according to “Bringing the History of American Family Law into the Classroom.” In 1899, the first juvenile or family court was established in Cook County, Illinois. By 1917, all but three states had passed juvenile-court legislation. By 1932, there were more than 600 independent juvenile courts in the United States. By 1945, all states had created separate juvenile courts.

Today, family law not only covers issues such as marriage, divorce, adoption, and juvenile delinquency, but it continues to expand into areas such as elder law, alternative family arrangements (same-sex marriage, divorce, co-parent adoption, etc.), and reproduction issues (such as surrogate mothers, sperm donors, and in vitro fertilization).