One of the country’s top family Judges will call today for divorce laws to be overhauled. Family law should reflect society “as lived now — not in the distant past”, Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court Judge, will tell a conference in London. Current law was designed in a “wholly different era to deal with a different society”, he will say.
“In the immortal words of John Cleese, it is a dead parrot. It is no more. It has gone to meet its Maker. Or should do.”
Sir Paul will call for a “new and fresh look” by an independent commission. The current law on how a couple’s assets should be split needed to be “humanely killed off”. It is unfair to couples and particularly to those who are unmarried, he will tell the conference, organised by Jordan Publishing.
Procedures are “unduly clunky, slow and antediluvian. We must face up to the fact that family law shapes society … and the law in this field has an urgent and desperate need for a rootand-branch overhaul.”
Sir Paul, who set up The Marriage Foundation two years ago, a charity campaigning against family break-up, makes the point that there has been no comprehensive look at family life and divorce for 60 years.
“It is incredible and concerning that as a society we have had no such high level inquiry since that Royal Commission which led to the current legislation, now 43 years old,” he will say. Sir Paul will also announce that he is stepping down from full-time Judging after more than 13 years to devote more time to his charity and to out-ofcourt ways of settling disputes such as mediation and arbitration.
Except in rare cases, the days of courtroom battles, “of the gladiatorial wars of the titans are over. The dinosaurs have had their day.” Even the more intractable cases could be solved in a much more sophisticated and modern way and with “altogether less bloodshed, time and cost”.
But the private sector has to lead the way. “We cannot wait for the courts to get round to moving into a more streamlined and user-friendly environment which would, I suggest, require a new and more hands-on approach.”
He will tell lawyers that no political party has the will or clout to reform divorce and family laws because the changes would attract flak from one quarter or another.
The last attempt by the Conservatives, which removed the “outmoded concept of fault”, was kicked into the long grass, he will say. Similarly attempts to reform the law on the rights of unmarried partners had been sidelined. But such laws “can be very harsh and unfair, especially on unmarried mothers after long relationships”.
Failure to reform the laws has meant radical changes to family law property and procedure have been created by the courts and Judges. The Supreme Court has had to step into the gap to achieve justice because the legislation is out of date, he will say. “In the end we are doing the classic British thing of reform by inertia, stealth, common sense, and the laws of cricket.”