By Stephen Green
It was welcome, if astonishing, to hear a senior Family Court judge attacking Government family policy and the breakdown of family life in Britain today.
Mr Justice Coleridge told lawyers from Resolution (previously the Solicitors Family Law Association) that the collapse of family life is at a scale and of such severity that it would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago. It was, he said, 'in meltdown'. 'What is certain is that almost all of society's social ills can be traced directly to the collapse of the family life,' he said.
'We are experiencing a period of family meltdown whose effects will be as catastrophic as the meltdown of the ice caps,' the judge told the meeting. 'Family breakdown', he said, posed 'as big a threat to the future of our society as terrorism, street crime or drugs'.
Prison statistics show that offenders are overwhelmingly from broken homes, where a father's absence is the key factor, and from criminal families. Sir Paul Coleridge grasped the reality of this situation when he told the solicitors: 'I am not saying every broken family produces dysfunctional children but I am saying that almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family.'
He asked: 'And what is government doing to recognise and face up to the emerging situation? The answer is: very little and nothing like enough. It is fiddling whilst Rome burns.'
Perfectly illustrating the Government's complacency, a spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Families and Schools said: 'We do not agree that there has been a breakdown in the family - 70% of families are headed by a married couple... And a recent BBC poll suggests that three-quarters of people in Britain are optimistic about the future of their families, 24% higher than when the same question was asked in 1964.'
However, the biggest single cause of family breakdown, even allowing for the vast number of cohabiting couples with children, is divorce on demand. Divorce on demand and the negotiating of no-fault divorce settlements are the bread-and-butter of the solicitors whom his lordship was addressing. One party in a marriage can simply walk away from what they intended in all good faith to be solemn wedding vows, file a divorce petition and claim half the matrimonial property. If one party wants to stay, they will need a mortgage for a 'marital buy-out'.
Almost 70% of divorce petitions were granted to wives in 2005, with most of those citing unreasonable behaviour. I worked with a lot of divorced men against the passage of the notorious no-fault, divorce-on-demand Family Law Bill in the mid-nineteen-nineties. They told heartbreaking stories of losing everything they had worked for, and I heard of cases where a wife's adultery had been rewarded with residence of the children and the family home, as the Courts ruled that her lover would be a "replacement father figure". It was clear that injustice was being done, and that a system was in place almost to guarantee that half of all children would end up with no contact with their natural father.
It would of course be wrong to blame wives for everything. Affluent men can also leave, many of them to marry someone new, safe in the knowledge that they will end up with half at least of a substantial property. The wife can be left betrayed and lonely in the autumn of middle age. That is an injustice in itself.
National Statistics show that almost nine out of ten stepfamilies consist of a couple with one or more children from the previous relationship of the woman only. This, says the ONS, reflects 'the tendency of the children to stay with the mother following the break-up of a partnership.' Many stepfathers do a great job under difficult circumstances, but there are shocking occasions where paedophiles marry or just move in with a woman to gain access to her children. On top of that, the Shannon Matthews case has highlighted the chaotic network of relationships which constitutes today's version of the 'extended family'.
As Mr Justice Coleridge would no doubt agree, we can trace most of the alienation in our society, the drug-taking and drunkenness amongst disaffected youth, the crime and anti-social behaviour, the random sex and escalating teenage pregnancy to what amounts to institutionalised family breakdown.
Like many of today's ills, divorce on demand impacts the poorer sections of society the worst, which makes one wonder why Labour is so in favour of it. The very poor can get away with it, and can even be better off divorced under our anti-family benefits system, but those in lower income brackets fare less well. They often try the impossible, going along with a split and then attempting - and failing - to buy two properties with the proceeds from one modest family house.
Sadly, having campaigned against divorce-on-demand for almost twenty years, I now have first-hand experience of the way the divorce laws operate in this country. My wife, whom I suppose I must now refer to as 'ex-', was granted her decree absolute last year. I don't bear her any malice and I hold no grudge against her. However it all came about, for His own reasons the Lord allowed it to happen. Added to that, 'We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose' (Rom 8:28). So, even after divorce, there is a place called 'forward'. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder what would have been the outcome if our law had made the door marked 'divorce' a little harder to open.
It all brought home to me the reality that even when no-one else is involved, a man and a woman only remain married in this country for as long as both of them want to be. If one, for what may seem at the time to be very good reasons, wants to leave, the courts allow that to happen and the party who leaves simply has to declare instances of unreasonable behaviour. These are never hard to find; they can be entirely subjective and are consequently undefendable.
For that reason, defending such a petition is seen as unreasonable behaviour in itself and counts against the party petitioned against, not least in costs. Consequently, most petitions are 'uncontested'. It sounds as if the respondent agreed to it all, but it is just that party recognising the realities of the legal situation.
We hear a lot about 'concilation' and 'mediation'. The Solicitors Family Law Association is now called Resolution, which also sounds as if the legal machinery is all intent on saving marriages. In reality, the law compels no serious attempt at reconciliation, and mediation is simply concerned with dividing up the property and sorting out with whom any children under 18 should live.
Matthew 19 records that unreasonable behaviour, the most popular reason for divorce in Britain today, was specifically ruled against by the Lord Jesus Christ. The only grounds for divorce which scripture appears to allow are adultery (from Deut 24 and Matt 19) and desertion (from 1Cor 7:15). For years those two, with the addition of cruelty, were the grounds for divorce in this land. If we returned to that, if no-fault settlements ended, and if more effort were put into reconciliation rather then chasing mediation's chimera of an 'amicable split', the breakdown of marriage in Britain would diminish to a fraction of what it is today.
In that event, there would also be far fewer lawyers needed to specialise in family law. The trouble is, the House of Commons is weighed down with lawyers. Put that together with the fact that God hates divorce and that secularists, who love what God hates, are also over-represented in Parliament, and that Statist philosophies which regard strong families as competitors for the allegiance which should belong to the State alone are heavily entrenched, and it becomes obvious that it will need a miracle for us to see any change in the law.
However, if Mr Justice Coleridge's call goes unheeded, family breakdown will increase still further, and the financial consequences, human misery and all the ills of our dysfunctional society will eventually increase to the point of total collapse. The Government will still be saying all is just fine and dandy as the Family Court calls time on the last married couple in Britain.
It is good that God is in the business of doing miracles in answer to his people's prayer, but are we passionate enough for His righteousness and His holy institution of marriage and the family to pray the prayers and do the things which are needful here? Do we pretend that divorce-on-demand is not our problem? Do we bury our heads in the sand at the way the law militates against the very marriage courses we run in our churches? In concentrating on the trees of individual cases are we failing to see the structural and legal wood of which they form part?
The fact is, we do not see campaigns on this matter from Christian lobby groups, despite all the hand-wringing on the 'demise of the family,' and we need to.
If you have had first-hand experience of these issues in your own life or in your church, and you would like to support a campaign to end divorce-on-demand and no-fault divorce, please email firstname.lastname@example.org - there is a spamarrest filter because of the spam we get, but you only have to negotiate it once.