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Justice Coleridge warns family justice system is 'mismanaged and neglected'

Date:7 APR 2008
Prominent High Court Judge, Mr Justice Coleridge, broke with the judiciary's traditional silence and spoke out against the government in a speech to Resolution family lawyers at their annual conference in Brighton on Saturday.

"I am afraid that the time has come for family judges to speak out publicly in protest at the way in which the family justice system in this country has been and is being mismanaged and neglected by government," said Mr Justice Coleridge.

Referring to his 37 years of experience of family law, the judge criticised the government for not doing enough to deal with the extent of family breakdown, which now affects every level of society, from the Royal Family downwards.

He warned that the effects of family breakdown on the lives of ordinary people will be "as marked and as destructive as global warming" if the government does not introduce fundamental reform. Highlighting a need for reform and increased resources, he urged policy makers to: "Stop chipping away at the family justice system and trying to have it on the cheap."

Mr Justice Coleridge accused the government of "doing very little and nothing like enough" to tackle the collapse of family life.

"I am not talking about tinkering with tax rates for married couples. That is irrelevant and ineffectual window dressing."

Mr Justice Coleridge argued that family law is not given proper priority in the allocation of resources, but comes "way below the building of prisons or the criminal justice system."

"Whereas most members of the public are more likely to be involved in the family justice system than any other court process during their lives."

Increasing family breakdown means an increased volume of work for family courts that are already struggling to cope with demand: "Delays are rife in every part of the system through lack of resources. And delay, as we all know, exacerbates all the problems and compounds the stress," said Mr Justice Coleridge.

"Add to this outdated divorce laws, outdated law relating to unmarried couples and a legal aid system that is withering away and you have a family legal system that is increasing the strain on separating couples and their children rather than helping them.

"There has never been a greater need for the public to have access to a lawyer with specialist family law and family justice experience than now. They are as vital a commodity in our national life as the local GP . Indeed their tasks are not dissimilar. When a family is going through crisis whether it be medical or psychological or legal, caused by family collapse the first port of call is and should be the local GP, if it is medical, and the local family lawyer, solicitor and barrister, if it is legal.

"If family breakdown and parental separation cannot be avoided then the better it is managed and handled the less the emotional, and psychological fallout on the individuals concerned especially the children."

Mr Justice Coleridge called on the government to ensure that family breakdown and family justice are at the top of the political agenda and "face up to the need to reform the substantive law of divorce, financial ancillary relief and the law relating to cohabitants. Stop ducking the issue."

He pointed out that divorce law was last properly reformed two generations ago in the mid sixties when society was altogether different: "The current laws are not suited to modern social mores or the way we live now. When the last major reform was introduced there was no such thing as cohabitation outside marriage. Now it is as common as marriage if not more so."

Godfrey Freeman, who was newly elected Chair of Resolution at the Conference, and a practising family lawyer for over 30 years, said: "Mr Justice Coleridge has highlighted many of the very real concerns that impact daily on the work of family lawyers. Delays and lack of resources in the family court system are a sad reality and inevitably exacerbate the anxiety, anguish and financial cost of family breakdown."