A senior High Court is launching a campaign to promote marriage and reverse the “appalling and costly impact of family breakdown” on children and society at large.
Sir Paul Coleridge wants to halt what he calls a “re-cycling” attitude to relationships in which people ditch partners rather than try to make things work — with damaging consequences for millions of children caught up in the family justice system.
In a controversial move for a serving judge, he is setting up a foundation to promote marriage as figures show that divorce is on the rise.
The intervention comes on the day solicitors say is traditionally the busiest for divorce petitions. Family strains over Christmas mean there are more than double the usual number of enquires in January, with the first working day of the year being the busiest.
Statistics show that marriage is better than cohabiting for stability and happiness of children, Sir Paul said, adding: “You are four times more likely to break up before your child is five years old if you are not married.”
He went on: “My message is mend it — don’t end it. Over 40 years of working in the family justice system, I have seen the fall-out of these broken relationships. There are an estimated 3.8 million children currently caught up in the family justice system. I personally think that’s a complete scandal.”
But some have questioned the move. Anastasia de Waal, director of family and education at think-tank Civitas, said: “It is very important where you’ve got a judge who is making decisions about families that they are not clouded by a particular view but are looking at what is going to serve the family.”
The fact that Sir Paul held strong views that he had expressed before was not a problem, she said. “But it would be problematic if it was deemed to be in any way affecting his judgment.”
Sir Paul, 62, who is married with three children and three grandchildren, says he is not moralising about people who live together or being critical of single parents, who have “a very difficult time”.
“My focus is on the children. I am unashamedly advocating marriage as the gold standard for couples where children are involved. I desperately want to avoid a moral crusade. And this is not just a cosy club for people who are happily married and can say, ‘Look how well I have done’. It will, I hope, appeal to people of every class, creed and ethnic background — including those who are divorced.”
Sir Paul, who spent 30 years as a family barrister before becoming a High Court judge in 2000, did not think that his views would affect whether people were prepared to come before him for a ruling.
His Marriage Foundation has the backing of leading names in the judiciary and legal profession, including Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former President of the Family Division; Baroness Deech, a leading family academic and currently chairman of the Bar Standards Board; and Baroness Shackleton, a leading family lawyer whose divorce clients have included the Prince of Wales and Sir Paul McCartney.
But he also expects family solicitors and barristers to endorse its aims, as well as some judges. “The profession has made its fortune from marital breakdown; it is now time to put something in,” he said.
The launch of the foundation, for which £150,000 annual funding is being raised, comes as figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there were 119,589 divorces in England and Wales in 2010 — up by 4.9 per cent on 2009 and the first rise since 2003.
David Cameron has promised tax breaks for married couples, although the policy is opposed by Nick Clegg. But Sir Paul said: “Governments cannot legislate stronger relationships into existence. Ultimately, more and stronger marriages will result from individual choices, behaviour and culture. We will seek to influence those choices.”
The foundation aims to be the “go to” place for information on marriage and would commission research, hold seminars and conferences, produce publications and, in due course, lobby for “family-friendly” policies.
In his own words
“Obtaining a divorce is easier than getting a driving licence”
“In about 1950 you weren’t allowed in the royal enclosure at Ascot [if divorced]. That would now exclude half the Royal Family”
“Mothers who defy court orders and refuse fathers access to children should have them taken away — something like ‘three strikes and you’re out’ ”
“I am not saying every broken family produces dysfunctional children, but I am saying that almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family”
“People want to change horses mid-stream — it’s the disease of the modern age”