Is Family Law really set to Split?

March 5th, 2020

Last month, we welcomed back the heroines of BBC legal drama ‘The Split’ for a second series. Led by powerful, self-made matriarch, Ruth Defoe, played by Deborah Findlay, we continue to follow the personal and professional lives of her and her daughters as their family law firm merges with another, more male-dominated firm.

Sexual politics and personal lives aside (because they are so complicated and demanding we wonder how anyone actually gets the work needed for high-net worth London cases done) the show has been ground-breaking in its concept and line-up, but how has it portrayed the professional world in which it is set?

One the face of it, the emotion and personal situations involved in family law should lend itself to relatable and entertaining drama.  The fact that this second series feels more focussed on the personal relationships of its characters than those of their clients, is indicative that family law far more complex and difficult to bring to the screen.

Gone are the hours spent listening, consoling, calming, reassuring, researching, reading, gathering information and dictating letters, in favour of high-octane power-walks down corridors in tailored fashion and towering heels, dramatic face-offs in skyscraper boardrooms and threats of a variety of severe-sounding court orders and injunctions.

This is all perfectly understandable, and there are insightful moments, such as the speech Ruth gives while collecting a lifetime achievement award in episode four in which she references how, at the start of her career in 1970, family law was an ‘unfashionable’ area of the profession until women like her proved they could build outstanding and rewarding careers, and then men began to ‘muscle in’.

However, so far, The Split has yet to portray the progress and developments, fought for many years from within the profession, of family law in recent years.  Mediation, Collaborative Law and the calls for No Fault Divorce do not have the same dramatic impact, but are now an important part of creating a less hostile, aggressive and adversarial approach to separation and divorce.

The true failing of the television series has been the missed opportunity to show the diversity of modern family law.  The main (and only major client) plot outside the family drama is between Donna Air who plays Fi Hansen, a famous television personality who becomes desperate to leave her professional partner and husband, the controlling Richie Hansen, played by Ben Bailey.

Fi is fragile, confused and fearful of her dominating and manipulative husband, especially when it is revealed he has compromising bedroom footage of her (which is confusing in itself, because many celebrities have built or enhanced their careers with such attention).

Would it not have been more sensational, more interesting and more worthwhile putting the spotlight on a man who was in the vulnerable position of divorce proceedings? Men being subservient, manipulated and dominated is not uncommon, but rarely mentioned in favour of the traditional gender roles within a divorce situation.

It’s a shame that The Split has chosen to follow a stereotypical portrayal of relationship breakdown rather than acknowledge the myriad of circumstances we deal with every day.

Slick, glossy and glamorous, the BBC has created entertaining prime time drama, but is it representing family law? Opinion is Split.