I took part in a debate organised by the Times this week about reform of our divorce laws. Well, I say a ‘debate’. There wasn’t much of that. Not much in the way of dissent. The four other panellists, who included a government minister, all wished to liberalise our divorce laws. And it was chaired with great impartiality by Sir James Lawrence Munby, who was until recently the president of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales. He made a stirring ten-minute speech on why we need to liberalise the divorce laws. Yes, it was like one of those exquisitely balanced Newsnight debates, then. The audience consisted of 100 or so lawyers who wished to liberalise the divorce laws. So I felt a little bit, you know, isolated. I don’t want the divorce laws liberalised.
One by one they got up to speak, and each began by saying that more than anything they wished to preserve the institution of marriage and then one by one outlined how they intended to undermine it as soon as humanly possible. Including Sir James, relishing his exciting dual role as referee and captain of the home team. Upon his retirement from the Family Division, i.e. the courts which are there to look after families, Sir James announced that the traditional nuclear family was dead and that we should ‘welcome and applaud’ its passing. Another speaker, Sir Paul James Duke Coleridge, also demanded we make it easier for people to escape from marriage by dropping the notion of ‘fault’ from divorce proceedings. Sir Paul, another retired High Court judge, is the chairman of an institution called the Marriage Foundation. The views expressed by these two eminent men — which seem to contrast a little with the requirements of their day jobs — brought to mind a chap called Malcolm Bell, who achieved brief prominence in midsummer this year. Malcolm had, via the press, seemed to urge people not to visit Cornwall — and in doing so enraged many Cornish people, not least because Malcolm was the boss of an organisation called Visit Cornwall. It may be that after years in a particular post we end up loathing everything about it, the basis of it, its aims and aspirations. Nuclear families — good riddance. Marriage — nah.
The arguments utilised by these legal monkeys to support their case were specious, disingenuous and in a couple of instances verging on surreal. So for example Coleridge denied that removing the fault clause from divorce, i.e. making it easier for people to divorce, would lead to more people divorcing. In fact, when challenged on this by me, he said the reform of the divorce laws in 1971 had ‘absolutely nothing to do with’ the exponential rise in divorces over the following two decades. An incredible statement which seems to me bordering on the mental — as was pointed out by a contributor from the floor, Baroness Deech, who explained that there was a huge spike in divorces every time the law was liberalised, as you might expect. Baroness Deech was my only ally that night, incidentally.
But Coleridge and Munby are absolutely insistent that reforming the divorce laws and an increase in the number of divorces are totally unrelated. I suppose they cleave to the view that the law is merely enacting the will of the people and that separations would have occurred anyway, brought about by the zeitgeist. This is why, I think, Jack Cade got it right. It’s a thesis which is immediately disprovable and, frankly, stupid, m’lud. But it is necessary for them to purvey it because without it they have lost the argument. They know, beyond all doubt — even Munby knows — that a nuclear family in which a married husband and wife raise their genetic offspring gives by far the best outcomes for children. The figures are absolutely incontestable. And they know too that divorce causes abject misery to the children (and later a greater prevalence of mental illness, poor school results, greater risk of drug addiction, worse employment records) and poverty for families. And that divorce is a massive social cost to this country — more than £50 billion per year in benefits and social worker intervention. So they are placed in the position of having to argue that liberalising the divorce laws, making it easier for people to divorce, will not increase the number of people divorcing. Which is a patent absurdity.
And allied to this, they then argue that without reform, people would still separate, they simply wouldn’t get divorced. Well, perhaps some might. But it would not remotely match the enormous spike — and continued rise — in numbers who take advantage of easier divorce procedures. In this country, currently, about 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce, by the way. I’m sure with a bit of diligent work from the Marriage Foundation we can get that up to the 100 per cent mark.
Removing the concept of blame from divorce releases people from taking responsibility for the vows they made — till death do us part — and means that effectively we would have divorce on demand. It weakens the institution of marriage by saying it can be ended whenever you want, for whatever reason you want. Nobody at fault, nobody to blame, just one of those things, really — never mind about the kids.
The Times reported the debate, as you might expect it would. But it made no mention whatsoever of anything I said and no mention of anything said by Baroness Deech. The government, meanwhile, seems committed to this agenda and has been soliciting for opinions — almost exclusively from within branches of the legal profession. And so onwards we go, into a bright new liberal future, with its guarantee of increased poverty, the mental anguish of children and their later failure in life. Something, I think, to be ‘welcomed and applauded’.
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