Top judge: end ‘pass the partner’ culture

A culture of broken relationships is scarring children and damaging society, a leading family judge warned last night.

Mr Justice Coleridge said the breakdown of families had become an “epidemic” and “a matter of concern for us all, especially where so many children are infected by it”.

To stem the tide, marriage should be affirmed as the “gold standard” of relationships, he said.

Mr Justice Coleridge, who presided over the high-profile divorce of Heather Mills and Sir Paul McCartney, spoke of a “complete and uncontrolled free-for-all where being true to oneself and one’s needs is the only yardstick for controlling behaviour”.

“The re-emergence of a public attitude which is anti-relationship destruction, a new stigma perhaps, could do a lot to stem the flood,” he added.

He called for a national commission drawn from a wide constituency to help tackle the problem, which he said had become a public issue because of its effect on the whole of society.

In a similar speech to family lawyers last year the judge put the social consequences of family breakdown on a par with terrorism and economic decline.

His latest comments came as he addressed a meeting of the Family Holiday Association in Central London last night.

He said: “What I hope in all humility I am drawing attention to is the endless game of ‘musical relationships’ or ‘pass the partner’, in which such a significant portion of the population is engaged in the endless and futile quest for a perfect relationship which will be attained, it is supposed, by landing on the right chair or unwrapping a new and more exciting parcel.”

While Mr Justice Coleridge said marriage was “the most enduring” family set-up and the one in which children “perform the best”, he also said he favoured some rights for co-habiting couples.

In last year’s speech he suggested that enforceable pre-nuptial agreements and reform of divorce law to remove the “fault” element from the process could help tackle the problems associated with family breakdown.

Christian groups and family campaigners have warned against such measures which they fear could encourage even more couples to split.

Unmarried couples are six and a half times more likely than married couples to separate following the birth of a child, although married couples still outnumber co-habiting couples six to one.

Marriage statistic

Mr Justice Coleridge added last night that the proven success of marriage “is a simple, provable fact which has to be faced, however unpalatable to its detractors”.

He said: “Support for marriage therefore makes pragmatic common sense because it is demonstrably in the public interest and ultimately saves money.”

The Department for Children, Schools and Families responded to Mr Justice Coleridge’s speech by affirming the importance of “strong family relationships” to the “wellbeing” of society.

A spokesman added: “That is why the government is committed to doing more to support parents and children experiencing family breakdown and to provide preventative support to help families maintain strong, stable relationships.”

However, last year deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman reportedly stated her view that marriage had “little relevance in public policy”.

Conservative leader David Cameron has promised that if his party gains power at the next election it will support marriage through changes to the tax system, though he says same-sex unions will also benefit.

He has faced internal opposition over the plans, which last year were dubbed by Kenneth Clarke, the shadow Business Secretary, as “social engineering”.

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