Speaking Out On Family Breakdown: Bravo, Mr Justice Coleridge!
June 19, 2009 3 comments
Earlier this week Sir Paul Coleridge, who sits as a High Court judge in Central London, spoke out about family breakdown. His speech has been widely published: I read about it in the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. He talked about his sadness and frustration at the volume of family breakdowns, with lawyers warning that the family courts are “overstretched to the point of collapse”. He lamented the plight of children caught up in what he described as a game of “Pass the Partner.” The judge called for wide-ranging investigations and new laws to try and stem the tide. His belief is that that marriage, rather than cohabitation is the “gold standard” of relationships.
This speech has been widely commented upon, and I have noticed that responses from members of the public tend to fall into one of two categories. Either they back his views about marriage, or they simply dismiss what he says because they believe that he has failed to move with the times and fails to understand the new types of family that are in existence today.
My own view is straightforward. Society has changed beyond recognition during the last 30 years. The family unit made up by a working father, a stay-at-home mum and two children is no longer the norm. Both parents now tend to work because they need or wish to do so. Couples are generally marrying later, if at all. Within many families, there are fewer children. There are different types of families now: there are many more step-parents and step children. There are same sex parents. Varying numbers of parents, grandparents and other relations now play their parts in children’s lives.
I don’t believe that law can stop family breakdown, but I do believe it can legislate for the consequences of that breakdown. And so back I come to my old soap box: we urgently, desperately, need law for cohabiting couples. I can only reiterate (again) that many cohabitants – including those who visit my offices – are horrified to discover that at present, there is little legal remedy available to them.
I would add this: when a marriage breaks down, the court must be satisfied about the arrangements for children before there can be a divorce. When cohabiting partners split up, no such provision exists. If there are any children, they slip under the radar. This simply isn’t right.
Speaking from personal experience, I cannot agree that Sir Paul Coleridge QC is out of touch. I was one of many solicitors who used to brief him on behalf of my clients when he was a barrister in practice at Queen Elizabeth Buildings in London. He was urbane, charming, funny and… brilliant. Clients adored his manner and the results that he obtained. He was never arrogant, unlike so many in his position; he was never selfish, boorish or unpleasant. When he went to the Bench and became Mr Justice Coleridge, I thought he went too soon. In my opinion it was a terrible loss to the family Bar in general, and to many of my clients.
I love being a lawyer (and I really mean that) because I believe that, in my own small way, I help people go through some of the worst times of their lives and come out the other side whole again. Yes, I also like to get paid. But the sense of satisfaction I feel from the thanks I receive, and from the practice that we have been able to build up because people trust us and know that we will do our best, far outweighs it all. I genuinely enjoy helping people. I enjoy having a gift for being a family lawyer – and I think it is a gift – when I am useless at many other things. That is why, through thick and thin, day in, day out when people suggest taking it easier, I never can and doubt I ever will.
I’m certainly not alone in this feeling. Thousands of other family lawyers out there share these motivations. Perhaps when you are a judge, this feeling that you are helping others goes. You do make decisions that affect people’s lives, but I’m not sure the same sense of self worth, the same feeling that you are doing your bit, remains. By crossing over from advocate to judge, you become part of the system. The nature of your contribution changes.
When I read Sir Paul’s speech I was a little sad for him, because he is such a brilliant man and although he feels deeply distressed and dispirited by what he sees as a High Court judge, there is little that he can do about it.
Working on family law’s frontline, I know that just as surgery cannot prevent disease, law cannot prevent family breakdown. I accept that. Day in, day out, like an ant, working alongside lots of other ants, I keep at my job and do what I can to help.
Image credit: Doug88888.