Working in London is very different from our other two offices. Travelling to Harrogate I’m used to a leisurely short drive through gorgeous Yorkshire scenery, parking easily and then enjoying a comparatively relaxed pace of life I had never before fully appreciated…until now. It’s the same in Cheshire. Even on the long drive over the Pennines, I go at my own pace, in my own time and after a morning at work can literally pop over the road to the Greenhouse, a fantastic and friendly veggie restaurant.
But London is different. There is no such thing as leisurely or friendly, or so it seems to me. The pace is fast, people race along the pavements, no one smiles and everyone looks positively grumpy.
It was raining yesterday when I set off for the first full day at our new office, so I hailed a cab. Coming up Chancery Lane we drove past a fellow family lawyer who had his head down and was striding towards his office. Dressed all in grey and looking thoroughly miserable, his mood seemed to match the day perfectly.
“What have I let myself in for?” I asked myself as we swept past.
I don’t think people are fully back at work yet. High Holborn wasn’t as jam packed as usual and arrived in good time and felt relieved to see a set of friendly faces. Partner Gavin Scott who has come down from Hale and Paul Read, my trusted lieutenant from Harrogate. They both inspire confidence and I’ve no doubt they will inspire others too. Their firm, confident voices were very reassuring and I started to relax, despite all the teething troubles everyone who has ever set up a new office knows only too well!
On my walk home yesterday evening I was struck by just how dark the London streets were; the outlines of those same fast moving commuters only illuminated by the yellow light of passing cars, shops and street lights. When I reached home I found my flat was also uninvitingly cold, dark and empty.
I love being in London, but always know that my real home lies waiting in Yorkshire – and that I can head home whenever I want. This is something that those in broken relationships can’t do: go home. They are often trapped with feelings of loneliness, isolation and anxiety and my heart goes out to them at one of the toughest times of the year.
People don’t like living empty, grey and lonely lives. They like to be happy, which generally means living as one half of a couple. They like the companionship and all that brings: conversation, colour, arguments and ups and downs. Even if another party is involved, a marriage break down can still be achingly, unbearably painful and lonely. And divorce doesn’t give anyone immunity from pain.
So why does Sir Paul Coleridge, who has spoken on the same theme for some time now, think it’s possible to set-up a brand new foundation to save broken marriages? Why does he keep saying it’s as straightforward as his catchy slogan: “mend it – don’t end it”? How can he really think his foundation will work when a couple may have decided it can’t, and that their lives have changed for ever?
Had Sir Paul not been a hugely successful QC at the family bar before going up to the bench, and had he not personally known all his clients inside out, I could have better understood the formation of his Marriage Foundation. He must have heard first-hand from his clients during conference, when they were talking to him and pouring out their heart’s emotions, feelings and pain, that it is not as easy as to simply say “mend it” rather than “end it”.
A broken relationship is not always even the result of a mutual decision. A relationship usually starts to break down years or months before it finally does. The couple starts to “uncouple” and if they don’t realise what’s happening to them, by the time they do it will be years too late. I’ve heard of countless couples who realise there is nothing left when their children leave home. One or both of them choose to end the marriage and move on to start a fresh chapter while it’s still possible.
Divorce lawyers know by the time they meet their client any chance of a successful reconciliation is almost impossible. It can happen, but in my experience it doesn’t often – and that is nothing to do with me! I don’t make those decisions and know that the loneliness of a broken relationship can never be underestimated.
I have also never yet met a divorcing parent who doesn’t agonise over their children, who doesn’t consider the pain being inflicted on the family, but who also believes that overall the decision is best for all of them. These decisions are never easily made, they are made because those involved genuinely believe, or have come to accept, that the relationship that once existed is now dead. Criticise them or not, understand them or not, these couples have a right to end a marriage in the same way they have a right to enter into it.
So if any good needs to be done for society then by all mean let’s encourage couples into marriage, something which Sir Paul says is the gold standard for a family. There I completely agree, but the number of couples marrying is substantially dropping, so there is obvious work to be done by his foundation and others.
But again I recognise that not everyone does want to marry. I happen to agree there is more chance of a successful family if the parents are married, but to try and force couples to get married or force them to stay married is, to my mind, plainly wrong. To impose a different standard on them, to require them to ‘mend it-not end it’ is wrong.
I also wonder whether the Marriage Foundation will campaign for divorce reform, and if so, should a judge be involved? And while I respect Sir Paul’s decision to speak out and campaign, isn’t a “guilty” party going to feel concerned if he or she comes before him in court, knowing of his views?