There is ‘no political will’ to address the record levels of family breakdown that currently cost the country an estimated £40-100bn a year, a leading family lawyer claimed during a Law Society public debate yesterday.

Ayesha Vardag, principal of London firm Vardags, one of a panel of four experts who discussed the changing role of marriage and the legal framework that underpins it, also described the traditional model of marriage as a ‘binding contract’ that is effectively ‘a blank cheque to the state in the person of the court’.

She said: ‘But there is no political will to touch marriage or divorce.’

Vardag, who won a Supreme Court ruling for multi-millionairess Katrin Radmacher that pre-nuptial agreements should have ‘decisive weight’, said that it was inequitable that only the rich were in a position to make new law.

‘We need a mechanism to allow new laws to be driven through the courts by people without money,’ she said.

Anastasia de Waal, family and education director at think-tank Civitas, said that, despite the increase in cohabiting couples, marriage continued to have relevance.

‘Cohabitees that stay together usually go on to marry,’ she said.

Samantha Callan, policy adviser at the Centre for Social Justice, said that the high divorce figures represented ‘an endless river of misery’, while ‘serial monogamy’ was a ‘route into poverty that collected broken hearts and children’.

Callan said: ‘There are 3.8m children in this country living with just one biological parent.

'We need relationship education to teach kids at school about marriage, cohabitation and staying together.’

Yorkshire firm Harrogate Family Law partner Andrew Meehan said: ‘Marriage is at an all time statistical low, with people choosing to cohabit, without stigma, for a range of reasons.

'Society’s values have changed over the last 50 years and the law needs to catch up and quickly.’

A judge from the floor closed the debate, saying that ‘the judiciary always has the last word’.

He said: ‘We are witnessing record levels of family breakdown, from the royal family down to the least privileged members of society.

'This must be addressed because it is costing us an estimated £40-100bn a year. We should leave aside our prejudices and look at our wallets instead.’

The end of marriage as we know it? was the first in a series of Law Society public debates scheduled for the coming months.

The Gazette is the media partner for the series.

For details of the coming seminars in September and October visit the Law Society events page.