Kill off outdated family law, says retiring Coleridge

Topics: Family and children,Courts business

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  • Sir Paul Coleridge

The private sector should take the lead in developing more innovative and ‘daring’ alternatives to the ‘bloodshed, time and cost’ of court, according to a retiring family judge.

Announcing the he is stepping down from full-time judging, Sir Paul Coleridge also called for an overhaul of outdated divorce laws.


He told a conference in London yesterday that he will devote more time to the Marriage Foundation – the charity he set up two years ago – and to ‘explore and push’ the possibilities of out-of-court alternative dispute resolution.

English courts need to follow other jurisdictions and be more ‘innovative and much more daring’ in this field, he said. 

Save in rare cases, Coleridge said the ‘days of gladiatorial wars of titans’ are over; ‘the dinosaurs have had their day’.

Even the most intractable and difficult cases, he suggested, can be solved in a more ‘sophisticated and modern way’ with less ‘bloodshed, time and cost’.

He said the private sector has to pioneer the work and pave the way for change, as ‘we cannot wait for the courts to get round to moving into a more streamlined and user-friendly environment’.

Coleridge called for an independent commission to take a ‘new and fresh’ look at the current divorce laws, which have been unchanged for 40 years.

Family law, he said, should regulate how life is lived now, not in the ‘distant past'.

Current divorce and financial provision law, he said, was ‘designed in a wholly different era to deal with a wholly different society and way of life’ and is no longer fit for purpose.

‘In the immortal words of John Cleese it is dead as a parrot, it is no more, it has gone to meet its maker. Or should do.’

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, he said has ‘had its day’ and should be ‘humanely killed off’.

Readers' comments (9)

  • Brilliant idea. But what about the reduced fee income if we cannot charge for and expand our file with unnecessary acrimony and nonsense? Yet more firms will go under!!

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  • LOL.

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  • "Current divorce and financial provision law, he said, was ‘designed in a wholly different era to deal with a wholly different society and way of life’ and is no longer fit for purpose"

    It is judges who interpret and apply law; then blame the fallout on the law. The law was never designed to be applied in the manner the judges found useful to themselves and their pals in past chambers. The judges never were fit for purpose, not the law. 'Wholly different society...' exactly, not the society judges inhabit, which is the society whose financial interests family law has been perverted to serve.

    ‘bloodshed, time and cost’....says a High Court judge just as complicit in the current system as anybody else ...and who therefore has blood on his hands.

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  • Family law may be in need of reform, but Sir Paul Coleridge's proposals will not be achieved without the political will to do so, and will in any event take years.

    Far more achievable will be the growth of family mediation, which already helps tens of thousands of people each year to achieve agreements swiftly and cost effectively, even in difficult and complex cases. Many very experienced family lawyers have made the effort to train as mediators and are already able to provide the service that Sir Paul calls for.

    Real change in the family law system could be achieved at a stroke and at no cost at all if the family courts simply rigorously enforced FPR practice direction 3A which requires each party to lodge a correctly completed form FM1 before a financial or child application is issued (ie by requiring the parties to find about about mediation first).

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  • Bit rich this coming from Coleridge, he was the last of my 33 Judges involved in my 10 year battle to see my kids (1993-2003). Despite being recommended by the child psychologist to enforce his own order upon the mother for contact, he refused. Instead, my kids had to take the law into their own hands by running away to me. Then we got rid of Coleridge and his dishonest mates and lived happily ever after. Nothing gets enforced upon mothers and that's where family law becomes a farce. Dare say he's on a massive pension for being pretty useless.

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  • The comment by Mark Harris says it all, but not as he intended. Litigants themselves are often the cause of the kind of 'bloodshed, time and cost' of which Coleridge complains. One or both parties may approach the breakup in various ways, the worst of which will display vindictiveness, greed and dishonesty. When a spouse decides to hide his or her wealth, to attack the other physically or otherwise, to lie and cheat over money or the children, when they hang onto the other person in order to continue the battle, often through their children the law has to step in and impose a solution.

    In addition (and often magnifying the unpleasantness is the law and the legal system. Where the system has failed in the past it has often been because the judges were unwilling either to hear the issues (conduct etc) or unable to decide where the truth lay. In addition we had and still have the post code lottery in financial remedy, with dramatic differences between judges in the treatment of asset division. That more than anything was always a recipe for strife. If your lawyer can't be sure that you won't get what you want, however unreasonable you may be, then why settle?

    There were far fewer serious disputes about property and children in the days when the law didn't give much to wives and fathers didn't get much of a look in with their children. There was greater certainty, lawyers could better predict the result and clients were dissuaded from attempting what seemed like the impossible. But it was so often grossly unfair that the new law of 1970 was inevitable. The current system, designed as it was to be fairer in both areas is vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous party and the uncertainty stemming from the sheer variety of ‘fair’ results from the judiciary. One has only to look at the total failure of judicial leadership on the subject of pension offsetting to recognise that lawyers often can’t give their clients the lead they need.

    In any event, we shall soon have the data to know if it was lawyers who caused the problems. With many more litigants in person much of the unpleasantness should disappear, shouldn't it?

    I wouldn't advise anyone to hold their breath!

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  • Mr Justice Coleridge is one of the most pleasant judges I have ever come before. I remember with fondness his quip "Mr Lyle. You always assume I know more than I do".

    In these intractably hostile family disputes, often involving the most unpleasant litigants, simply disappearing the non resident parent, is often the only practicable measure left to the court, by the litigants themselves

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  • Au contraire the comment that Mark Harris made says it all as he intended. Yes obviously litigants are the cause of many a issue, but you will often find that it is the lawyers who advise and take best advantage of this acrimony/greed. To fully understand how biased/outdated the divorce laws are in this modern world of equality you must have been or be a litigant , preferably a doting father. "Nothing gets enforced upon mothers" how true, the children are assumed to be the property of the mother who then "allows" the father to see his children regardless of any unenforceable ridiculously expensive contact order. Not only that on divorce she is then entitled to the majority of assets he has earned and gets a tidy sum from spousal maintenance till death, child support which she does not need to provide accountability for and on top of that tax credit/benefits. Realizing at that point, in the house she has been awarded that she is better of putting her feet up and enjoying her life than going to work.

    I still remember with disdain what my barrister told me "If you didn't like the fact she was not working why didn't you divorce her then" along with
    "The other barrister is quitting because this is not a Big Money case " and just before court to the other party "Don;t worry this is a good judge".
    No doubt they will both go on to becoming outstanding Judges after they have built up a fortune from their big money cases and wish to retire.

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  • It is amazing that in 2013 we hear from an eminent Judge that the 1973 Act is out of date and unfit for purpose. This was a bad piece of legislation in 1973 and has brought family law in England & wales into disrepute. Our judges could have done a great deal to alleviate the bad law created by politicians but they have generally failed to do so particularly in the area of financial provision. It is about time for a total rethink, not just tinkering with ADR.

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