Marilyn Stowe’s February Solicitors Journal Column

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February 21, 2011

Divorced From Reality

Fresh from an Oxbridge eye-opener, Marilyn Stowe wonders how stuck in the past the future will be

It is one of the perks of our chosen field that no two weeks are the same. For the past 30 years I have represented an average of some 300 clients a year. During this time there have been significant changes in our society and to our laws. Most of all, there have been changes to how we value marriage and how we define families.

Even by my standards, however, the past couple of weeks have been extraordinary. It began when I received an invitation to take part in a student debate. I was asked to speak in favour of the motion: ‘This house believes that marriage is an outdated institution.’ The venue? The Oxford Union: that training ground for future politicians, which has hosted leaders including Sir Winston Churchill and the Dalai Lama. Alas, I can’t claim to be a leader on the world stage. However, I had plenty to say about the marriage motion – and I decided to go for it.

The controversial motion fell, but what a memorable evening. Arriving at Oxford, walking up the crunchy gravel path to the union building, I felt as if I had been transported from Leeds to Hogwarts.

The best way to describe it is that it outdid anything in a Harry Potter novel, but it was impossible not to relax before such a welcoming audience: they cheered the speakers and union officers as we made our way to our seats in the crowded, imposing debating chamber.

When I stood up to speak I explained that as a practising family lawyer I believe law reform has transformed the value and significance of marriage as we know it. In the 16 to 44 age group, there are now more couples cohabiting than there are married couples.

The winner takes it all

The family law blog I write prompts regular comments and emails from men of all ages and occupations. Some of these men clearly believe that our family law is biased towards women to such a degree that, as one wrote recently, getting married is no longer a “viable option”. To quote another: “It’s just not worth it.”

Family solicitors will remember the ‘old days’, when marriage used to be a good investment for a man. His wife would cook his meals, clean the house, do the shopping, produce all his children and look after them, too. If his marriage failed, he would have to pay relatively little. It was a win-win.

Women rarely pushed for divorce not because they revered the institution of marriage, but because they couldn’t afford to leave. When I founded my practice in Leeds in the 1980s, female clients who came to me were in truly desperate situations. I found that abused women would frequently return to their husbands because they and their children had nowhere else to go and there was insufficient provision and protection for them by the law.

Change of heart

I pointed out that, since then, much has changed. In my experience, breadwinners – most of whom are men – abhor today’s equal sharing principle.

Isn’t it ironic that marriage is regarded as old fashioned when at present it is cohabitation, the supposedly modern alternative, which harks back to an earlier age? There is no sharing and there are no reasonable needs to be met if a long-term relationship breaks down.

Instead, there have been moves to restore the institution of marriage to its original status. There are calls to invest £30m into ‘relationship education’, and restore tax breaks for married couples. There are moves to legalise prenuptial agreements; as I have noted previously, these plans mark a departure from the bedrock of our family law system: fairness, exercised through judicial discretion.

But, whatever the moralisers try and do, it is too late. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law. She blogs at marilynstowe.co.uk