British High Court judge launches campaign to promote marriage and fight ‘addiction to divorce’
Britons have an addiction to divorce fuelled by a ‘Hello! magazine’ attitude to marriage, a top judge has warned.
Sir Paul Coleridge said family breakdown was ‘one of the most destructive scourges of our time’.
Citing growing evidence of harm to a generation of children, he said youngsters whose parents separated saw their educational achievements and job prospects damaged.
In a highly unusual move for a serving judge, Sir Paul will tomorrow launch a campaign – backed by senior legal figures and Church leaders – to promote marriage.
There was ‘incontrovertible’ proof that married couples were more likely to stay together, he said.
Sir Paul, one of the most senior family court judges, voiced particular concern over what he called the ‘Hello! magazine, Hollywood image’ of marriage, saying: ‘The more we have spent on weddings, the greater the rate of family breakdown.’
And he also warned that a trend for older couples to split once children leave home was having an ‘extremely emotionally disturbing’ impact on families.
Sir Paul’s campaign is expected to be supported by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu and the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, while patrons of the campaign include former chief family law judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, family lawyer and academic Baroness Deech and Baroness Shackleton, the divorce lawyer who acted for Prince Charles and Sir Paul McCartney.
The judge warned that courts had ‘streamlined’ family cases to contend with the growing numbers, making it too easy for couples to split – suggesting they should be required to go through counselling and mediation.
‘We don’t traditionally comment on matters of policy, but there are very few people who have had as much experience of what is going on as the family judiciary,’ he told the Daily Mail.
‘We have watched it get worse and worse and worse. The time for sucking our teeth is over. Waiting for government or others to take action is merely an excuse for moaning and inactivity.’
According to official figures, there were 400,000 cases heard in the family courts in 2010 and 120,000 divorces, up 5 per cent on the previous year.
There were 241,000 marriages in 2010, a near 100-year low. Some 22 per cent of marriages in 1970 had ended in divorce by the 15th wedding anniversary, whereas 33 per cent of marriages now end in the same period.
Cohabitation, meanwhile, rose from a million couples in 2001 to 2.9million in 2010 – and it is projected to rise to 3.7million by 2031.
Referring to the ‘Hello! magazine’ attitude, he said: ‘Marriage is not something that falls out of the sky ready-made on to beautiful people in white linen suits.
‘It involves endless hard work, compromises, forgiveness and love. However right the person is, they might not be right two years later. It doesn’t matter how wonderful you appear to be to your partner at the beginning, you will begin to display faults that we all have.
‘In order for a relationship to last, you have to hang in there and adjust and change and alter and understand. Long, stable marriages are carved out of the rock of human stubbornness and selfishness and difficulties.’
Sir Paul, 62, who has been married for nearly 40 years and has three children and three grandchildren, also warned of the rise in so-called ‘silver splitters’ – couples who separate late in life, often when their children leave home. In the past decade divorce among the over-50s has risen by 10 per cent.
‘It is very sad that we now see such a huge number of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s getting divorced and carving up their estates and their lives,’ he said.
‘There has been a dramatic increase. The truth is that people think it’s fine to do that once children are grown up. It probably isn’t as destructive as when as child is 12, but if you speak to those in their 20s or 30s who experience their parents breaking up long after they have left home, they will tell you almost always that it’s an extremely emotionally disturbing thing for them, and indeed for any grandchildren. It creates huge sensitivities. The tectonic plates of a family shift.’
Sir Paul said he backed proposals to make it compulsory for anyone wishing to apply to the courts over an acrimonious separation to attend mediation or counselling.
Tory ministers have suggested that separating couples should be made to understand the impact of conflict on children.
But the judge suggested a wider shake up of the law, which he said dated back to the 1950s.
‘The law and the courts have undoubtedly played a part, because in order to manage the enormous flood of cases we have had to streamline the law and the process. There is no such thing as a defended divorce any longer. We see that the fight is no longer over the divorce itself, but over money and children,’ he said.
Sir Paul said he was not interested in ‘preaching’ or pronouncing moral judgments. And he defended the right of judges to speak out on issues of concern in which they had expertise.
It was the same, he said, as doctors alerting the public to an epidemic they had detected. ‘It would be irresponsible to remain quiet. This is an exceptional situation,’ he said.
The Marriage Foundation, the new campaign group he will lead, will accept divorce is sometimes unavoidable and will not argue that those who make a sustained commitment to one another outside marriage are in some way inferior.
‘This is not going to be a cosy club for the smug and self-satisfied of middle England but, we hope, the start of a national movement with the aim of changing attitudes across the board from the very top to the bottom of society, and thus improve the lives of us all, especially children,’ the judge said.
Instead, the campaign will seek to promote marriage as the ‘gold standard’ for relationships that benefit couples, children and wider society.
A report to be published by the foundation will say there is now overwhelming evidence that married relationships are more stable and the children of such relationships fare better.
A baby born to cohabiting parents is more than ten times more likely to see its parents separate than one born to married parents.
Among natural parents, almost 90 per cent of married couples were still together when their children were seven compared with just 69 per cent of couples who were cohabiting. Almost one in four children living with cohabiting parents as a baby, meanwhile, was in lone-mother families by the age of seven compared with only one in ten living with married parents.
The costs and consequences for society, the foundation will say, are unsustainable.
Half a million children and adults are drawn into the family law and justice system every year, with 3.8million children currently caught up in the family justice system.
The financial cost to society of broken relationships is estimated to be £44billion a year. Research by the Youth Justice Board suggests 70 per cent of young offenders are from broken families.
The positive benefits of marriage include higher incomes and greater accumulation of wealth, avoiding the loss of income that tends to follow a breakdown.
Marriage also improves health, with one study suggesting the health gain may be as large as the benefit from giving up smoking.
The five champions of marriage
The five key members of the Marriage Foundation have notched up some 204 years of married life between them.
Lord Justice Coleridge, 62
Has been married to Judith for 39 years. They have two sons and one daughter.
Sir Paul Coleridge was privately educated at Cranleigh School, Surrey, and called to the bar in 1970.
He married his wife, a boatbuilder’s daughter, in a simple ceremony – with a reception in a boatyard – in 1973. He has speculated that expensive weddings create a greater risk of family breakdown.
He has previously said that ‘splitting families is like splitting the atom. You get enormous quantities of pent-up emotional energies that spill out and are completely unpredictable, plus all sorts of collateral damage that nobody expected’.
Baroness Deech, 69
Has been married to Dr John Stewart for 45 years. They have one daughter.
Ruth Deech was ennobled as Baroness Deech of Cumnor in Oxfordshire in 2005.
Her father was a historian and journalist who fled the Nazis in Vienna and her family arrived in Britain on September 3, 1939, the day war was declared on Germany.
Lady Deech believes the number of weddings has fallen to its lowest level since 1895 because ‘religion is a waning force, women have financial independence, there is state support for lone parents, children are no longer classified as illegitimate, divorce is easy and there is no recrimination over sex and birth out of wedlock’.
Lord Justice Toulson, 65
Has been married to Elizabeth for 39 years. They have two sons and two daughters.
Sir Roger Toulson was appointed as a Lord Justice of Appeal in January 2007 after a distinguished 38-year career in the law.
He is patron of several charities, including Time for Families, a Christian charity that supports families, and Keep Out, a scheme aimed at rehabilitating young offenders.
In a case in which a morbidly obese man argued that his local health authority should fund his fat-reducing surgery, he said: ‘Human rights law is sometimes in danger of becoming over-complicated.’
Baroness Shackleton, 55
Has been married to Ian Ridgeway Shackleton for 27 years. They have two daughters.
Fiona Shackleton is the personal solicitor to Princes William and Harry. She has been nicknamed ‘the Steel Magnolia’ for her toughness and has handled high-profile divorces, including those of the Prince of Wales and Diana, the Duke and Duchess of York and Sir Paul and Lady McCartney.
She has been quoted as saying: ‘I like sticking up for people, making sure they are not taken advantage of. Even if they are incredibly rich.’
Baroness Butler-Sloss, 78
Has been married to Joseph Butler-Sloss for 54 years. They have two sons and one daughter.
Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was the most senior woman judge in Britain until her retirement.
She made many controversial decisions, including blocking a man’s legal battle to see his test-tube baby daughter, conceived after he broke up with her mother.
When criticised by Fathers 4 Justice, she said: ‘I cannot meet [them] because they are not being sensible, and as long as they throw condoms with purple powder and send a double-decker bus with a loudspeaker outside my private house in the West Country there is no point.’