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Interview: Paul Coleridge founder of the Marriage Foundation

20 July 2012

'The Government says all family arrangements are fine. They are not, actually'

I am a High Court judge sitting in the family division - the senior family court. It deals with all the most complex cases involving disputes about children, their parents, and money. I also deal with the most complex care cases - for instance, cases where the local authority is seeking a care order or adoption order.

"Mr Justice" signifies that you are High Court judge, as opposed to a circuit judge, which is the next tier down.

I've always worked in family law, since 1971. I didn't choose it: it chose me. I started by doing everything, and gradually specialised in family law.

I find it extremely interesting because of the different ways people live their private lives. Even the most successful person can have a chaotic family life. Over the years, I have become more and more interested in the children side of the work, because of the impact that a judicial decision can make on a child's life.

If you make a decision about where the children will live for the rest of their minority, that's obviously going to be crucial for them. If you're dividing people's wealth, if they have plenty of it anyway, really it doesn't make much difference. When children are involved, it's more important, more difficult, and it's not just about law, but also needs particular skills and instincts.

I began to talk of the enormity and extent of marriage breakdown in 2008, and was struck by the extraordinary response it generated in the press, and in the people who wrote to me. If you deal with it every day, you tend to take it for granted and don't appreciate the extent, in macro terms, of how concerned people are.

I had actually set out to talk about the problems that courts have when the Government cuts money for legal services; but I found that the public was more interested in talking about family breakdown than courts' problems.

It was time to stop talking and do something. Governments won't touch it, for fear of being regarded as judgemental. They say all family arrangements are fine. They are not, actually.

It came to me more and more that one of the biggest holes in the dyke is the reduction of marriage rates, and the increase in divorce rates. Divorce rates have levelled out, but at a very high level. People say: "Well, you should talk about the whole business in a broader way." I don't agree. We must target the biggest part of the problem. People think cohabiting is fine, and just as good, but the rate of cohabitation breakdown is staggeringly higher than divorce.

We need to talk about marriage loudly and often. The Marriage Foundation's name is a double entendre: it's both about trust and the foundation of society.

When people misrepresent what the Marriage Foundation is about, I want to scream. People think you want to talk about marriage in a loose and general way, and particularly want to involve us in the redefinition debate. We've always deliberately taken the strategic position not to get involved. That doesn't stop people saying we're just being coy, and do have a position, but we're very small, and just starting, and don't want our favourable publicity to get mixed up in a heated debate where both sides have put their cases very clearly anyway.

If we can help people to understand and appreciate the nature of long-term and committed relationships, both for themselves and their children, we will have done a good job; also, the huge benefit to them and their families in striving to make the relationship work.

We're not intending to interfere in any way with the work of other agencies, all of which are doing excellent work. We would like, perhaps, to provide an overall umbrella under which they could be associated, with a common overall aim. The sum of the parts would pack a bigger punch in public debate.

Relationship education is the key, I believe. Mediators and other divorce professionals can help to explain to people the real price of divorce, and so encourage a last try, but I doubt that this will really impact on the figures much.

The Church has a tradition of helping people to cope with marriage breakdown. I think it could have a huge part to play, as people still associate it with marriages and weddings. Running serious marriage- preparation courses is a mission they all should regard as a priority, I consider. All the best and most active churches do, nowadays.

I was born and raised in London. I had two powerful and outspoken parents and have two sisters. I have been married for 39 years, and have three married children and three brilliant grandchildren. I shall be surprised if there are not more in due course.

Favourite sound? The chatter from my grandson, aged two-and-a-half.

The most important choice I made was coming back to the Bar after I had left it for four years in the mid-1980s. I almost didn't. In 1985, one of my clients, who was divorcing his fourth wife, asked me to go and work for him on particular projects invol-ving his immense and wonderful art collection. Afterwards, I wondered what to do next. I might well have gone into commerce, but I was persuaded to go back by my old chambers, and that's what I decided to do.

It enormously stimulated my interest in the visual arts. I love so many painters, ancient and modern, I don't know where to start. I used to do some watercolours. I should probably take it up again.

I have achieved much more than I would have thought possible when I was a recalcitrant teenager; so I have almost no regrets. There are journeys I have not made and would like to have done, but there isn't time now to do them all. As a child, I wanted to go to drama school and act. I have always rather fancied the idea of preaching, and have never got round to making it happen. Probably too late now.

I'd like to be remembered as being an uncompromisingly fair, impartial, and courteous judge. Not that I got it right all the time, but that everyone had a fair hearing. And that Marriage Foundation will last a long time to do what I want it to do.

I've been influenced by C. S. Lewis, John Stott, John Newton, and my wonderful, scatty forebear, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (my great-great- great-grand-uncle).

The Coleridges are a big clan, because each member of the family from whom I'm directly descended has ten or 12 children; so by the 1900s there were dozens of them, either soldiers, or lawyers, and judges, or clergymen. I'm descended from the legal line. In the 19th century, there were three High Court judges in three successive generations, which was a record. The second one became the Lord Chief Justice of England, and presided over many interesting cases, including one involving the Prince of Wales. Then a break, and I'm the next.

My eldest son became a successful City solicitor, but is now ordained. My younger son didn't go to the Bar, which I think he now regrets, but became an accountant.

I'm the Coleridge fanatic, and my daughter is more interested in him than my sons. He was an extraordinary man: you can so easily identify with his strengths and weakness.

I like Shakespeare, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Hardy, Trollope, and most classic authors, but also many modern novelists, including Joanna Trollope.

Theology's a bit like curry: I like it at the strong end of the scale. I cannot stand thin theology. I think almost any sermon of J. C. Ryle, John Stott, or Dick Lucas, or the great Evangelical preachers is memorable. Coleridge's theology was interesting, of course, but a bit muddled; after all, he became a Unitarian for a time. Yes, it's very reasonable, and you can see how people could come to it, but it isn't true.

My favourite place is my cottage in Dorset, which I have owned for 30 years, and where I can really relax like nowhere else.

Acts is my favourite book of the Bible: it is so inspiring. Least favourite? Some of the more turgid bits of the Old Testament.

I'm happiest when I feel I am achieving something really worth while, and which has taken real effort. Easy achievements bring little satisfaction in any spheres of life.

I pray for a sense of real gratitude for my faith, and for what I have, and my family.

I have great faith that people can learn and change their behaviour when they are presented with facts in a neutral and reasonable way. I have often seen people change their mind in court when they see that there is another way of looking at things.

If I found myself locked in a church with someone, I'd like it to be my wife.

Sir Paul Coleridge was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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