Mal Fletcher
Don't Shoot the Marriage Messenger

News that Sir Paul Coleridge, High Court Judge, has stood down, after being reprimanded for his comments in support of marriage, suggests that we may not value marriage as highly as we might.

The implied suggestion that Sir Paul may have acted in a way unbecoming of a Court official, simply by sharing his frustration at the breakdown of marriages and the impact this has on children, is tantamount to an admission that so-called 'traditional' family may no longer be considered a norm worthy of protection.

Whilst Sir Paul could have continued in his position with the High Court for another five years, he has said that his position is now untenable. He could not, he says, properly fulfil his duties if he felt he had to constantly look over his shoulder.

It is outrageous that a judge should be reprimanded for speaking up for one of the major foundations of our social order. Surely if judges are allowed to speak about anything, it should be the defence of the social order they are installed to protect, through the wise application of the law.

Dealing with the fall-out of marriage breakdown week in and week out must be tremendously frustrating for family court judges, most of whom, I dare say, are compassionate people with a strong sense of social responsibility.

Sir Paul is one such official who decided to channel his frustration in a positive and proactive way, by working to strengthen families before they arrive in his court.

He set up the Marriage Foundation think-tank, which aims to reduce divorce rates and the number of people drawn into the family justice system - at present, around half a million people per year.

The think-tank estimates that broken relationships currently cost the British economy £44 billion per year. The long-term emotional cost to children in particular is immeasurable.

The organisation seeks, it says, to 'influence the way individuals, couples and society as a whole think about forming, maintaining and ending relationships.'

Things would be different if Sir Paul, as a High Court judge, was launching an overtly political campaign or attack.

Yes, he has criticised the Government for focusing on same-sex marriage plans rather than putting enough resources into the 'crisis of family breakdown'. In this respect, he has perhaps sailed close to the wind. Yet I doubt that his comments were intended to be overtly political.

If they are judged as being political, it may be because some advocacy groups have shifted the middle ground on issues like marriage or divorce - or they've given the appearance of having done so, through a skillful use of nudge marketing.

In certain areas, some groups have effectively shut down debate in favour of fait accompli politics. In the process, they welcome all views except those with which they disagree.

The judge's public pronouncements seem to have been motivated by a recognition of the importance of marriage, to both individuals and society, and the need to help people build stronger marriages.

Sir Paul has declared that people who want stability for their children should place a high value on marriage. He recently declared that if people want to have children they should consider getting married, as a way of guaranteeing stability and security.

Yet he argued this not as a moral tenet but as a pragmatic one - given that marriage, if pursued with sufficient commitment and patience, provides the most stable environment for raising children.

Such a contention is borne out by studies that suggest children who are raised by their biological parents, in an harmonious, long-term relationship, are less likely to suffer developmental problems in later life.

Of course, blended families also raise wonderful children - as do single parents, often against tremendous odds. All long-term, stable relationships require both parties to work hard.

Few successful marriages are merely the stuff of fairly-tale 'happy-ever-after' romance. They require constant tender loving care and attention - with a good dose of romance thrown in, of course.

Building a lasting marriage involves a significant investment of time, tolerance and love.

Sadly, not everyone gets to enjoy that type of relationship - sometimes, through no great fault of their own. Divorce, while possibly never an inevitability, is an important option for some people, particularly those who find themselves trapped in physically or emotionally abusive relationships.

Yet abandoning relationships has become too easy an option in society, to the point where marriage vows, once seen as something made for life, are now often treated as having been temporary commitments.

No one in their right mind would argue for a return to a time when divorce involved underhanded and grubby tactics to prove fault. Or a time when divorce was so costly that only the wealthy could take advantage of it.

Or a time when divorce was all but impossible for women, who also bore the brunt of its consequences within the family and in the wider society.

Arguably, the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction. We seem to be headed to place where, at least informally, marriage is becoming a temporary bargain.

If we stay on this line, we may eventually arrive at a new form of pre-nuptial agreement; one in which couples agree not only the division of assets post-divorce, but the length of time they will be held to their vows.

Not many people will go into marriage thinking their union will eventually fail. Few will have children wanting anything but the very best for them.

Yet if a recent survey is to be believed, divorce is often seen as being in the best interests of the child.

Apparently, 25 percent of divorcing couples in Britain believe their breakup has had no negative influence on their children at all. Meanwhile, 75 percent of divorced couples say their relationships with their children are unaffected.

This is little more than wishful thinking. In all but the most exceptional cases, divorce is the worst thing for the child.

Far more beneficial for them is seeing their parents work through tough situations and disagreements and making things work.

Part of the problem for Sir Paul and his foundation is the fact that issues surrounding marriage and family have increasingly become political footballs.

Where once we fought to keep government out of the home, we now invite government to intervene on some of the most intimate and central issues of family life.

Instead of requiring Parliament to devise laws in support of already defined cultural values, we look to politicos to define our values, even on things as central to society as the family.

Sex education and protection of our children's privacy are just two areas that we've increasingly ceded to government oversight or responsibility.

Certainly, governments carry a heavy burden of responsibility to ensure that legislation protects children in these and other areas. But law must be seen as an adjunct to parental care, responsibility and authority, not an alternative to the same.

By extension, the family courts should be seen as last-ditch options for dealing with family problems, not first-response mechanisms. This, I think, is part of what Sir Paul and his colleagues are advocating.

It is sad that talk about marriage in the public sphere has become so politicised, partly around the fight for same-sex marriage, that any discussion is now deemed to be political in intent.

Marriage is too important to be left in the hands of lobby groups, of any persuasion, or politicians.

It is too central to social wellbeing, cohesion and productivity to be treated as something we should not be allowed to discuss, openly, honestly and with compassion.

If we try to still the reasonable voices of judges who've proven their integrity through long public service, on issues as foundational to our social architecture as stable marriages, we demonstrate how little we value those cornerstones.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

About us