Livening up personal and family law with actors

Maastricht University took the block of personal and family law to the next level. Instead of short, one-sided cases on paper, students now assist a couple in a complex divorce in two groups.

Gwen Noteborn
In this way, we give students much more baggage in the profession of family law.
Gwen Noteborn

One-third of all legal cases in the Netherlands involve the law of persons and family law. Yet this block is only a small part of the legal education. And then again, the block focused mainly on the conceptual side - knowledge of the law - while the profession of family law lawyer is much broader. "Because people dealing with family law are often under great stress which causes them to act irrationally. As a lawyer, how do you make sure that clients continue to see the big picture? That they may not choose what they are legally entitled to, but what leads to the best outcomes for all concerned in the long run?"

Case study on video

That question prompted Gwen Noteborn, associate professor of Personal and Family Law at Maastricht University, to get to work on the block and apply for subisidies from the Open and Online Education Incentive Scheme. "Learning from a book is generally not very challenging. Moreover, we were testing defined topics, while in real life there is often much more at stake. How do you keep the overview in a complex situation and how do you advise your client in it?"

Her doctoral research on educational innovation previously showed that providing context through interactive learning materials leads to better results than learning text from a book. Thus came the idea of having actors play a complex case. Students watched the video and split into two groups, each assisting one of the parties.


Many parties involved

Noteborn: "We started by making a list of the topics that all need to be covered in the module. There are quite a lot of them." Then the teaching team, together with some 25 experts including lawyers, notaries, judges and youth protectors, devised a case study in which all of these topics would be covered. "They were happy to collaborate, because they see in their own practice that family lawyers are not up to the task and also see the impact of that," Noteborn says. Then, with a team of faculty and students, she developed the videos. Two actors play two spouses getting divorced and going through all kinds of things. The actors didn't have rock-solid scripts, but they knew what to mention and what not to mention. "As a result, they also empathized well with their roles. They flawlessly sensed where the pain is and conveyed the emotions well. This makes students realize: oh, this is how people who are in divorce feel. A case then really comes to life."

Before putting the eight-week module into practice, the experts watched the videos in pairs, each having to represent one of the two spouses in court. In doing so, they were asked the question: what would you do? This gave the teaching team a good idea of the options.


"You could see even then that there is no one right or wrong, but that you can solve such a complex case in many different ways," Noteborn says. This became apparent when she started putting the module into practice. The students put together procedural documents, consulted with the opposing party, and asked questions of their client. "Immediately with the first group, you saw that some students ended up with a huge fighting divorce, and others came out of it together and only asked the judge for a ratification of the agreements made. So students were all walking their own 'learning path.'"

What also stood out: students empathize much more than when presented with a case on paper. And they see better that their choices concerning subject A also have consequences for B and C. Noteborn: "A legal battle is a game of chess. You make a move, and the other side responds with a move. In the way we used to teach and test, the game was finished after one move. Whereas now the students play it out until they are in court, where they actually have to assist and advise their client, weighing many interests at the same time. It's much more like practice." She also thinks this is a positive development for the teaching profession. "The conceptual knowledge students can also partly acquire independently. As a teacher, you can now go a step further and show students how the application of this conceptual knowledge works out in practice."

You just make education much more interesting with it AND you deliver students who have also learned how to apply their knowledge in practice.

Overseeing the big picture

Moreover, the knowledge sticks much better, Noteborn says. "Your role as a lawyer in a personal and family law case is to oversee the big picture. People often think they have things better settled than how they really are. How many unmarried couples are there with children where the father acknowledges the child - it even bears his last name - but does not record parental authority in the custody register? If that relationship breaks down and father still wants to have a say in the child, then as a lawyer assisting mother you can say: he no longer has anything to say about it. But you can also show mother: if you take into account the interests of your ex, then both you and the children and your ex will benefit the most in the long run. Of course, as a lawyer, you have to have an excellent knowledge of the law in the first place, but that knowledge can only be expressed if you also know how, and when, to apply it. I think students will really feel that through when they complete this block."

As the teaching team expands the teaching materials with new cases, the developed teaching materials can already be used by others. The first collaboration in this area is already in place, with Zuyd Hogeschool in Maastricht. In addition, the team would like to get in touch with even more professionals who would like to share with them how they prepared for a case and what background that decision has. Because then you can learn why a lawyer took the steps that were taken and learn from that.

Noteborn would love it if many more universities and colleges started using this method. "You just make education much more interesting with it AND you deliver students who have also learned how to apply their knowledge in practice."

More about the open and online education incentive scheme

This project was created with help from the Open and Online Education Incentive Scheme. See more results from the stimulus scheme projects.

Also read more about the project FAMEX: stimulating procedural knowledge in a changing labor market.