Speaking Out On Family Breakdown: Bravo, Mr Justice Coleridge!

family-breakdownEarlier 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.


Lenny - July 7, 2009 at 6:52pm

“I don’t believe that law can stop family breakdown,…..”

Not sure that I agree with that. On the other hand, it can certainly encourage it, and make the whole business a good deal worse.

If a marriage has genuinely broken down irretrievably, then probably only the most committed godbotherers would argue the couple should stay together.

It’s axiomatic that with any marriage only two people can say whether the marriage has broken down irretrievably, and they’re the two people concerned; but, and it’s a very big but, the couple concerned will be able to make a clear-headed, objective decision on that only if they’re fully informed on the nature and reality of matrimonial problems, and on what can be done to tackle them. That has nothing to do with attempting reconciliation, it’s just the analogue of what would happen with a medical problem, where someone would engage fully in the process of diagnosis, and do everything to help become more informed about their health problem, before deciding there was no hope of retrieval.

As I understand it, the law says that the only ground for divorce is irretrievable breakdown, and the rule of interpretation says that words used in a statute have to be understood in their literal sense. I would take the literal meaning of irretrievable breakdown to be an absence of capacity for retrieval, which had been inferred after doing everything that was reasonable and possible to establish first of all whether there was some capacity for retrieval. If that was applied properly, the law would have some sense and consistency. As it is, the mealy-mouthed, cobbled-together definition that is applied, lies at the heart of the law’s culpability for some of the social, emotional, health, and economic costs that flow from its interpretation and application. That culpability of course is shared by the legislature, the legal profession and the courts. (Humble view of a layman.:) )

The legal profession and the courts are not experts in matrimonial problems, any more than they’re experts in medical or mechanical problems, and for the generality of matrimonial problems I would suggest their early involvement is damaging to the whole process, although obviously that would not apply in serious cases such as where, for instance, there may have been violence. It’s not about making divorce harder or easier, it’s about making it more sensible and based on informed thinking. Having the issue embedded in an adversarial process from the start is simply not conducive to that objective.

Although I’ve read only the newspaper articles you link to, Paul Coleridge does indeed seem to be an eminently sensible chap, and I agree fully with what he’s saying, which includes disposing of the fault basis for divorce. Donald Mackay’s earlier attempt to reform the process also attempted to move to no-fault divorce, but unfortunately the process was left largely in the hands of solicitors, who no doubt had little enthusiasm in seeing it succeed. I hope lessons would be learned from that in any future reforms. Another lesson would be the inclusion of marriage issues on the school curriculum, which I think is inappropriate. It would be far more beneficial to include some instruction and consideration of approaches to conflict resolution more generally, such as using Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking techniques, or anything else that helps to widen thinking away from the adversarial style. The understanding gained from that wider application would then be useful in the more specific area of matrimonial conflict at a later date.

Interesting blog you have here. I like the way you weave in other strands of knowledge. My compliments to Renaissance Woman.

Marilyn Stowe - July 9, 2009 at 5:01pm

Thank you for a lovely compliment and I got another one as well.
The killer trainer (ongoing knee saga) called me ‘a posh bird’ !

Lenny - July 10, 2009 at 11:21am

Apologies to Mr Mackay in the earlier text. Obviously I should have said James.

Text of Mr Coleridge’s speech to the Family Holiday Association last month,


and of his speech to Resolution last year.


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