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High Court judge says children are the “real victims and casualties” of divorce

The impact of divorce should be measured in pain rather than the money, High Court judge Mr Justice Coleridge has declared.

The family court judge, set to retire next year, said in a  recent speech:

“Let us never forget, when we are debating in a theoretical way, the pros and cons and ramifications of this subject, what the real cost of family breakdown is and what it looks like. It is not measured primarily in money but in sheer pain and human suffering for all the adults and  children involved. And in lives permanently affected to a greater or lesser extent.”

The judge founded think tank the Marriage Foundation last year to campaign for matrimony and highlight the effects of divorce.

In the speech, published on the eve of a conference on relationship education, the former barrister said:

“Let it not be forgotten that 50  per cent of all children are not living with both parents by the time they are 15. There are millions of them and it is they who are the real victims and casualties. Their parents are too, of course, but the children are given no choice, are never consulted and only rarely considered before it and its effects are dumped into their young lives, slowly to release their legacy over the whole course of their upbringing and way beyond into their adult lives.”

He went on to compare past attitudes to divorce with current mores.

“In the old days society was held together by rigid taboos and stigmas which prevented parties from divorcing and stigmatised illegitimate children. These taboos were indiscriminate in their application and led to much inhuman behaviour and unhappiness. I am genuinely thankful they have evaporated and been consigned to the scrap heap of history in favour of individual choice.”

“However,” he continued, “if we are to enjoy freedom to choose we must be helped to understand and make the right choices for ourselves and our children. A society without boundaries is not the only alternative to nasty taboos. If we are not to have restraint by taboo, we must have personal restraint and self-imposed boundaries born of a sophisticated understanding of what makes us all, as individuals and as a society, happy and fulfilled.”

This is a topic which Sir Paul clearly feels very strongly about – strongly enough, in fact, to establish his own charity to campaign for such ideas. He makes some interesting points and I respect the sincerity of his views, but as a veteran family lawyer, I cannot agree with many of his claims.

Sir Paul concentrates far too much on the benefits of marriage. I just cannot see how some children will be helped by their parents persisting with an unhappy or dysfunctional marriage. Doing so could send a message that it is okay to beat up mummy or abuse daddy, and nothing will happen. Children made to endure an unhappy relationship will surely be damaged, and many will be left with the impression, even if it is only subconscious, think that all marriages are equally miserable.

I also do not think people get divorced too easily. The divorce rate is actually falling.  I think and truly believe the real problem we face are the ever-growing numbers of broken but unmarried families. There are so many because there is no regulation of them in law. If unmarried parents had significant financial obligations to their former partners when they broke up, surely more would think twice about doing so.

It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? At the moment you may face paying a substantial sum on divorce but you can leave a cohabiting relationship with barely a penny to pay.

Level the playing field in relation to remedies – that will really help the children.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Paul says:

    That debate on unmarried parents and their obligations towards each other post-separation doesn’t even get off the ground in my view until the law acknowledges that an unmarried father has same full parental responsibility in law as a married father does, separated or not. At this point, an unmarried man whose name happens to be omitted from the birth certificate is given a status in law little better than scum. That is a disgrace. It is unacceptable. More people ought to speak out and complain; now during this period of reflection and reform, it is time for some consistency and joined up thinking. This is the 21st century and we are on our way to Mars.

    As to Paul Coleridge, what is wrong in being an advocate for something a person happens to believe in strongly? Nothing that I can see. If nobody is going to stand up for marriage and articulate its benefits, the institution will slowly wither and die. Every positive value in a good, well-functioning society has to be explained, understood and supported. It is also wrong to suggest that Coleridge would for a moment suggest a wife remain battered for the mere sake of maintaining her marriage. Where is there anything to suggest this? Again, nowhere that I can see. His views are more likely to be to do what you can to save your marriage and go the extra mile but not at all costs. He is far too sensible a bloke for that.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Having been around for some time, I’ve heard it repeated over and again that children are damaged by parents in unhappy marriages. I’ve also heard it repeated that all of these unhappy marriages involve violence, when that is probably only actually true in highly exceptional cases. This strikes me as one of the biggest lies perpetuated by the legal industry, which feeds on divorce and so is always 100% in favor of divorce, no matter the consequences for the children. It is no longer amusing when people in the legal industry pretend to actually care about children. Nor is it decent when these people campaign to increase the financial incentive to one party (the mother) for divorce.

    We didn’t need Coleridge to tell us the obvious. Any good parent who has experience knows that divorce is a thousand times more traumatic and damaging for children. I don’t care much for Coleridge’s marriage advocacy, but he seems to be aware that most divorce is more than anything else, about one party gaining control and money, after growing tired or bored. In this respect, he is right.

  3. u6c00 says:

    From my libertarian perspective, the idea that the government should regulate the relationships of people who make a choice not to bind themselves to the laws that accompany marriage is abhorrent.

    We’re finally starting to move away from the idea that the government has a right to regulate what kinds of marriages are acceptable and legal, and it’s been too long in coming.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Well, if the legal industry gets its way, and gets cohabitation classed as marriage for purposes of clogging up the courts more and shifting the financial burdens of mothers onto one or other of her disposable male friends (while making a study business of DNA testing), you will not have less but more state intervention. I don’t think we are moving away from regulation at all, it’s quite the opposite, it’s just become a lot more subtle than anyone can imagine.

  5. Luke says:

    There are a few points here that I would like to comment on:

    (a) “The divorce rate is actually falling.”

    This is true, but not all the reasons are as positive as that statement implies.
    People are cohabiting much more (often with a number of people sequentially) and then marrying much later; many people are cohabiting and never marrying at all so cannot get divorced– which is why the marriage rate has gone off a cliff; divorce is extremely expensive, we are in a recession and many people just don’t have the funds at present to hire a lawyer.

    (b) “If unmarried parents had significant financial obligations to their former partners when they broke up, surely more would think twice about doing so.”

    Yup, they would be stuck in misery like so many people (primarily men) are in marriage, but that is not a great reason to do it in my opinion !

    (c) “It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? At the moment you may face paying a substantial sum on divorce but you can leave a cohabiting relationship with barely a penny to pay.”

    Yes, it is a no-brainer, but I’m failing to see what is wrong with it, I would argue that one party (again primarily men) gets financially shafted in Family Court and will want to avoid that. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and my experience vicariously of want happens to divorced men is that it is fundamentally unfair.

    The main problem though I see with bringing in cohabitation laws is that in the long term it won’t solve the perceived problem – at the moment I have a vision of men running away and lawyers screaming at them to stop whilst they attempt to fit the ball and chain of financial servitude on them via cohabitation !
    What I can see happening over time is a withdrawal by men from long term cohabitation and with the aid of advancing technology I fear the herbivore men and permanently dissatisfied women of Japan will come to pass in the West 🙁

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