Handling the scourges of separation – and how to shield the children


A High Court judge has said that marriage breakdown is one of modern Britain's "most destructive scourges".

Sir Paul Coleridge, who sits in the Family Division, was speaking at the launch of a campaign to champion marriage as the type of relationship to which all should aspire.


The Marriage Foundation, a charity recently launched in London, has won the support of churchmen such as the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu and the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, as well as other leading figures.

The foundation's remit is to press for improved public understanding of the "nature, benefits and importance of marriage and how healthy married relationships provide the most stable environment in which to raise children".

Divorce rates in England and Wales between 2009 and 2010 increased from 113,949 to 119,589 (4.9%) after several years' decline, according to the Office for National Statistics.

However, the Marriage Foundation recorded an increase in cohabitation from 2.1 million couples in 2001 to 2.9 million in 2010; a figure which is expected to rise by almost another million by 2031.

The foundation also says a cohabiting couple with a baby is over 10 times more likely to separate than if the child's parents are married.

Sir Paul, who has been professionally involved with family law for some 40 years, said that every year around half-a-million children and adults are drawn into the legal system.

"Marriage and family breakdown is one of the most destructive scourges of our time. I am now convinced that it is time not only to talk but to act. Waiting for government or others to take action is merely an excuse for moaning and inactivity."

Believing that celebrity magazines like Hello promote "unrealistic expectations" about marriage, Sir Paul said that people need to understand the importance of working at relationships in order for them to succeed.

"What I criticise is that there is still, or maybe more than there was, a completely unrealistic expectation… that if you find the right ideal partner that's all that matters and things will just carry on from there on and you will be divinely happy."

"We all know, all of us who have been in relationships – whether married or unmarried – for a long time... that the only way that they are made to work is by absolutely grinding away at it."

"That's when people find that, actually, if they get through the difficulties and do get the help, they will in fact end up with a product that is really worth having."

But what if those difficulties, despite the best efforts of all concerned, prove to be insurmountable? Some family environments could be irreparably broken. Emma Hopkins, a family law specialist at Simpson Millar LLP, notes that even the separation that is supposed to lay matters to rest might be so acrimonious that long-term damage is threatened, with children most at risk.

"Clearly it cannot be good for children to grow up in families where there are high areas of conflict or domestic abuse," said Emma. "Kids exposed to perpetual, debilitating strife, whether physical or mental, can end up terribly damaged for the rest of their lives. It is therefore sometimes in the best interests of the children and the family as a whole to separate, and do so with as little residual conflict as possible."

In such circumstances, offers Emma, parents should seek advice from a solicitor who is a member of Resolution: an organisation of family lawyers who campaign for family disputes to be resolved constructively and without potential long-term damage to children.

All 6,000 members of Resolution follow a code of practice that promotes a dignified, non-confrontational approach to family problems, encouraging agreements that consider the needs of the whole family in general and of the children in particular.

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