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Is Pro-Marriage Campaign on Firm Foundations?

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The number of marriages in England and Wales has been in almost constant decline for the past four decades, so recent figures showing that there had been a slight rebound were the cause for genuine cheer among its proponents.

According to the Office of National Statistics, 3.7% more couples headed up the aisle in 2010 than had the previous year.

However, it hasn't all been untrammelled (wedded) bliss. The year in question followed a 12-month period which had witnessed fewer couples getting married than at any stage since 1895.

If that wasn't bad enough, the figures emerged only months after the ONS released yet more data showing that divorce also enjoyed something of a revival in 2010, up 4.9% on the year before.

It is against that backdrop that a fresh initiative has been launched to revitalise the fortunes of matrimony. High Court judge, Sir Paul Coleridge, has set up The Marriage Foundation to, as he puts it, end the "destructive scourge" of divorce.

His campaign is in part, he maintains, a reaction to the almost casual nature of celebrity relationships devoured by the nation's gossip magazines.

Backed by other experts on Family law from among his fellow justices and academia, Sir Paul seeks to make marriage the "gold standard" for relationships. His aim is to reduce relationship breakdowns which exact such an emotional toll both on parents and the estimated 3.8 million children who he says are caught up each year in the family justice system.

Sir Paul hopes the initiative will also hopefully cut the annual financial cost of break-ups - which he puts at £42 billion - into the bargain.

The Foundation, is being launched in London's Middle Temple Hall, one of the capital's four ancient Inns of Court, and will attempt to influence the way people regard marriage and the choices they make about the relationships they forge. Information on marriage will be provided via a variety of sources with a particular emphasis on the internet.

The material will underline how marriage amounts to far more than a vow, a cake and a piece of paper as well as highlighting the nature of support available for those husbands and wives whose relationships run into difficulties.

Given the fundamental intention of Sir Paul's campaign, it might seem difficult or truculent to take issue. I and my colleagues also see the damage and distress wrought by relationship breakdown.

Any attempts to address and undo the often lasting impact which it has are to be rightly applauded. It is impossible, though, not to have some reservations at least with the narrow focus of the Foundation.

I would argue that there's a real need to support relationships of whatever kind. It is a point to which Sir Paul alludes when he highlights how other agencies may support relationships of all types - something which is, he says, "valuable work but not our mission".

Critics might suggest that it is wrong to rank one solid, stable environment as being better than another just as it is to imply that individuals enter into divorce as lightly as certain high-profile figures are alleged to do.

Few, if any, people make the decision to separate on a whim. My own experience is reflected in those of other Family lawyers at Pannone and many of our peers. Those people who come to us for initial advice about divorce have generally only taken that step after great consideration.

The noble sentiments which lie behind the Marriage Foundation's own foundation also appear to be a bold attempt to reverse recent trends. A third of marriages which do take place in England and Wales don't last 15 years. Even the ONS data which trumpeted an increase in marriages showed a rise in the number of people who were remarrying after bereavement or divorce.

And there's no guaranteed lasting comfort in a second or third betrothal. One-fifth of all those people getting divorced had, according to the most recent figures, been divorced before.

Add to that an increase in the proportion of people, both old and young, choosing to live together without marrying and it is clear that society's view of marriage is radically different to what it was when Sir Paul became a barrister in 1970.

That shouldn't, of course, be seen as devaluing what he is trying to do. Any measures which can highlight the importance of stable family life - and the consequences of its erosion for the partners and their dependents - are worthwhile.

Trying to distinguish between the respective merits of cohabitation or marriage, rather than accepting that each has its own benefits, carries with it the risk of creating disharmony - the very thing which Sir Paul is creditably trying to avoid.

Around the Web

High Court judge launching pro-marriage foundation | News | The ...

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The Marriage Foundation | Anthony Gold Solicitors

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