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Sandra Davis' Week: Marriage, the State and "broken Britain"

Date:10 DEC 2010

Sandra DavisThe problem with the latest report from the Centre for Social Justice published last Monday (Family breakdown in the UK: it's NOT about divorce) is not what it says, but how it suggests the social ills it identifies can be remedied.

According to the authors of the report, the number of children who will face family breakdown has increased from 40 per cent to 48 per cent over the last decade. While more than half of children are born to married parents, divorce accounts for just one in five family break-ups for children under the age of five, and, the authors claim, only 14 per cent of the consequential cost to the tax payer.

The impact on children of the breakdown of cohabiting relationships is, it appears, far more significant in terms of numbers and has a greater societal cost.

Previous studies regarding the social impact of parental separation have found that children from broken homes are nine times more likely to commit a crime and twice as likely to live in poverty. According to the Centre for Social Justice and its partner, the Bristol Community Family Trust, the societal impact of family breakdown costs taxpayers £20billion every year.

The solution, according to the report, is to strengthen relationships by reasserting the importance of marriage and commitment.

This is a laudable aim, but only addresses part of the underlying problem.

The definition of "broken homes" has always included homes that were never broken (in the conventional sense) in the first place.

Culturally we have a depressingly high teenage pregnancy rate: there were 41,325 teenage pregnancies in England & Wales in 2008. In most of these cases the child-parent involved would not have been in anything approaching a cohabitational relationship much less planning to marry the father.

Poor sex and relationship education, peer pressure and the abject social housing policy of the 70's and 80's have all contributed to successive generations of children being brought up outside of the conventional nuclear family (whether married or unmarried). For many of these children the norm and therefore the expectation is a family model involving a (teenage) parent caring alone for one or more children.

The absence of a second parent offering emotional and financial support for these parents and their children contributes significantly to the likelihood of social exclusion for all involved.

By all means the Government should be supporting relationships through counseling, education and (if it can) by offering financial incentives. More importantly, it needs to introduce an effective preventative education strategy that is able to break the teenage pregnancy cycle.

Sandra Davis is a Partner and Head of Family at Mishcon de Reya. She is a member of the firm's management board, a Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the author of International Child Abduction (Sweet & Maxwell, 1993) and a member of the Lord Chancellor's Child Abduction Panel. In 2009 she was shortlisted in the Citywealth Magic Circle Awards as a Leading Lawyer.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.