Boxing Clever

I wasn't planning on any Christmas blogging. There are better things to do, like drink sloe gin, eat vast amounts of all sorts of things, and play with the childrens' new toys. But then my Xmas was intruded upon when a family law related "news" item wafted into my dreams when the radio alarm went off at 6. I pretended I hadn't heard it and went to make a turkey curry, but the one time I go to check my phone I see Adam Wagner has flagged it for me via twitter (damn you Adam ;-)).

So darn you Coleridge J with your festive gay marriage bah humbugs. It's because of you I'm christmas blogging. Thankfully my children have lapsed into an early sugar induced coma so I have not had to cut short my playtime, but I have been ignoring my spouse in preference for my laptop screen just like an ordinary night, when really I should be cajoling him into playing monopoly or scrabble against his will (he escaped from the post it note game this afternoon by volunteering to wash up).

I'll keep it short, Johnny Depp is on the telly. To summarise, what Coleridge said I'll quote from the BBC report:

Sir Paul told the Times newspaper: "So much energy and time has been put into this debate for 0.1% of the population, when we have a crisis of family breakdown.

"While it is gratifying that marriage in any context is centre stage... but it [gay marriage] is a minority issue.

"We need... a more focused position by the government on the importance of marriage."

If you're running an argument that family and wider society is breaking down because people don't know how to make long term commitments to one another any more, and if you think that the celebration and encouragement of an institution that allows couples to make a public, legally binding and lifelong commitment to one another is a good thing, it doesn't make any sense to limit your efforts to promote membership of that institution to certain parts of society only.

And if your view is really that equal marriage is a minority sideshow that doesn't matter why engineer a situation where it becomes front page news on Boxing Day again? When I first heard Coleridge speak about the Marriage Foundation the message on gay marriage was "we're not going there" (see here where the FAQ still says "We have nothing we want to say in the current debate"). Now the plan seems to be to slipstream on the gay marriage press coverage whilst still not coming out with a position on it. Or perhaps alternatively its less of a plan and more a case of one too many sloe gins before bumping into a journalist on the tube. Who knows. The result is much the same.

It is notable that, as far as one can tell from what is quoted online (I am without the benefit of a Times subscription), Coleridge still doesn't directly come out (excuse pun) for or against equal marriage per se, rather he chooses to brush it aside without, I infer, a soupcon of insight into how such a dismissive attitude to a fundamental civil / human rights issue is likely to come across or play out in the media. The quote above suggests a failure to appreciate why this is absolutely an important issue, and this is pretty concerning for a member of the judiciary (especially one who has recently promised to keep a lower profile, not sure how broadsheet coverage on Boxing Day fits with that but hey). Even assuming the 0.1% figure is correct rather than straight out of Coleridge's christmas cracker, surely we don't measure the "importance" of civil rights issues by the number of individuals affected? Marriage currently affects a minority of people, an ever decreasing circle of people form active members of the C of E in this country, and no doubt approximately 0.1% of people have ever heard of the Marriage Foundation - but you don't see me arguing they're irrelevant. Wrong, annoying, regularly offensive to my world views, not my cup of tea etc etc. But not irrelevant. Much. Anyway, last time I looked the majority of people in this country (including the judiciary) still thought that so called "minority issues" like discrimination were still important. And, without wishing to be a pedant, the majority of people don't need a public debate leading to primary legislation in order to embrace the wisdom of the Marriage Foundation, because we're already allowed to get married if we want to. So - duh yeah, it's a minority issue!

The Foundation's entry into public debate on this STILL without in fact stating it's substantive position on gay marriage rather begs the question : why are the Marriage Foundation adopting an "if you can't say nothing nice don't say nothing at all" approach? Why won't Coleridge come out in support of marriage per se? It doesn't detract from his argument unless his argument has an undeclared (religious?) basis. It's a legitimate question now the "We have nothing we want to say" line has fallen away. The risk is that this confused approach may create an impression that there are some things that individuals at the MF might be itching to say but which are impolitic.

The irritating thing is that Coleridge is right when he says its great that marriage is centre stage, but he doesn't even see why he's right. The equal marriage debate has the potential to remind all of us, both gay and straight, of the unique character of marriage, namely the simultaneously public and private, lifelong commitment to a partner. My husband and I may not make it till death us do part (I bloody well intend to but I do read the divorce statistics so I'm not complacent), and I'm no god-botherer* either, but my marriage oaths were and are important to me. They are on the shelf in the dining room and I read them from time to time (and occasionally refer to their terms in the course of marital arguments). If marriage is the key to durable committed relationships, we should encourage couples of all persuasions to make this commitment, to make it after thoughtful consideration, and to do their best to make it work. That's what the Marriage Foundation says its all about and in that I have no beef with it, although I understand that marriage is not for everyone and there are other valid ways to make a solemn personal commitment apart from marriage (you can read my earlier blog about the MF here).

It's a shame and a missed opportunity that the Marriage Foundation's Christmas message sounds like "marriage is for people like us" rather than "marriage can be for everyone". It's just like the women bishops thing. Pushing people away from the very institution you are trying to save, pushing away the people you would convert.   Institutions, be they churches, clubs or marriage, need new members to survive. Those that survive change over time, evolving with each generation - sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes in great painful lurches.

Presumably Coleridge would accept that the impact of family and social breakdown on the children of gay parents and upon gay children is just as great as for the children raised in heterosexual families. Where is the plea on their behalf from the MF? Or are they just a minority too?

We should be working towards a common aim of making a stronger society by supporting strength within families, whatever those families look like.

PS I lied. Not short at all.

*my husband and erstwhile proof reader says "god botherer might be offensive to some" but I'm afraid I'm duty bound by virtue of my marital vows to disobey all his husbandly guidance as its all part of his evil patriarchal agenda, so it's going in as a lighthearted poke (and no more) and a piece of militant spousal ephemera.

[Update. Dang. Forgot to weave in pointless barbed comment about the reported use of the term "same sex people" by Coleridge. I think most of us can stand together under than most inclusive linguistic umbrella.]

Marrying Up is Down

DISCLAIMER: I'm not a social scientist, a statistician, an economist or a politician. So I may be talking out of my hat.

Again.

 

The IPPR has published a report on marriage patterns, and it shows that fewer women are "marrying up". According to the report I read in the Observer today "IPPR director Nick Pearce said class had "tightened its grip" on families: "This shift has implications for inequality, as well-educated, higher earners marry each other and pass on the fruits of their success to their children."" The paradigm example given in the article is a female secretary marrying the male boss. In fact it appears from the equivalent article in The Independent that Nick Pearce is slightly misquoted - the full quote is that  "social class has tightened its grip on marriage" not family, which is not quite the same thing.

This report sounds actually really interesting but irritatingly I could find no link to it or even any press release about it on the IPPR website. And so it isn't really possible to drill down into what it is all about, and I was left with a glimpse of the statistical information and a few odd quotes, the context of which was unclear.

I'm not sure what the implications of this report actually are because I can't actually read it (ggrrr), and am imagining it through the prism of what the press thinks is newsworthy, but reading this article left me with a slightly odd sensation that I should regard a change in such patterns is a bad thing. Am I missing something? I understand the argument that if more people marry within their own class, wider income inequalities are exacerbated. But aren't we simply talking about more women achieving an upward movement by means other than marriage? And more of those women marrying partners who are like them rather than their seedy old boss?

A social scientist (author of a thing called Honey Money, whatever that may be) is quoted in the article as suggesting that "there is plenty of evidence that most women aspire to marry a wealthy man". Really? Most women? Speak for yourself love. If I can't make my own money I certainly don't want to be beholden to any sugar daddy (Just as well, 'im indoors most definitely ain't loaded).

That most women who aspire to "move up" now aspire to do so by dint of their own hard work and intelligence rather than their ability or willingness to catch the eye of their seedy male boss is surely a known phenomenon and something that we should embrace?

And that many women may be motivated by factors other than wealth or career is surely not so difficult to comprehend?

And that some successful men may be wary about the financial risks associated with marrying "down" is surely not a controversial proposition either.

But, continues the social scientist:

"As women become better educated, and start to outnumber men among higher education students, it becomes impossible for all to marry an even more highly educated and high-earning spouse, so they are increasingly forced to marry equal or down.

"This is going to have a huge impact in the long term, as wives become equal earners to husbands, even higher earners. So sometimes couples will decide that it should be the husband who stays at home to look after the kids and the home, and you get an increase in role-reversal households." Such families suffer higher divorce rates, she said.

Do you see what I mean? Forced to marry equal or down? We can't all be Kate Middleton, eh? What a load of "Prince Charming" aspirational B.S. (I know, I'm over-reacting a tad - I understand that the statement is logically accurate but the use of the word "forced" implies aspiration disappointed).

Maybe this has hit a nerve because the role-reversal household model she goes on to describe reflects my own household, and maybe I'm coming from the perspective of women "like me" (whoever they are) - but the way this is put grates. I'm not aware of any research that "such families suffer higher divorce rates". I've had a good old google and I can't find anything (if there is some please set me straight in comments - I'd be genuinely interested in reading it). Even if the proposition that role reversal families suffer higher divorce rates is correct, one would need to go beyond mere correlation in order to show causation.

Ah well, spare a thought for the poor chaps who can't find enough good girls to marry "down" to. There's only troublesome independent ones to be had these days. And it's our fault that financial inequality is on the up because of our selfish insistence on equality, right? Arguments that "feminism has trumped egalitarianism" are not new (e.g. here).

I sense (in fact I know) that this is all rather more complicated and less clear cut than I would like it to be. But surely there must be a way to achieve social equality and minimise poverty other than "marrying up"? (more reality TV shows perhaps?)

The Daily Mail and the Moral Crusade

Sir Paul Coleridge may not be on a moral crusade but his Marriage Foundation has certainly inspired the crusading spirit in the Daily Mail (download pdf of article here: It's down to the judges to mend our divorce laws - they trashed them in the first place By STEVE DOUGHTY if you don't want to give google juice to the Daily Mail, but if you must see it in situ here is the link).

The Mail's Steve Doughty has written an article with a true identity crisis. When I read the words "A judge simply cannot launch controversial political campaigns, and particularly not about matters on which she is required to give daily judgements in court." I thought Coleridge was about to get it in the neck for sticking out his own. But in fact, whilst the judiciary in general are the villains of this piece, Coleridge himself emerges as something of a hero. Steve Doughty begins by reporting the unremarkable fact that the Law Commission is comprised of lawyers:

"Judges have taken the lead in developing family law for 20 years now. It was in the early 1990s that a judicial quango called the Law Commission, which was set up to provide ministers with advice on updating arcane areas of the law, began recommending sweeping reforms for no-fault divorce to take the tears out of family break-up."

The Law Commission of course advises the Government about Law Reform, and as we all know is often ignored, particularly where family law is concerned. But according to Doughty this has not stopped the judiciary from having their way by hook or by crook:

"It is the judiciary, not elected politicians, who have decided that the courts should take no account of adultery or other marital misbehaviour in divorce cases.

In a business contract, a party that breaks the rules is penalised. In marriage, the most far-reaching and solemn contract anyone can make, as far as the courts are concerned the rules don’t matter.

This is why a man who has to hand over a large slice of his income to an unfaithful ex-wife who is both living with a well-off partner and denying her former husband access to his children will sometimes feel driven to dress up as Batman and stop the traffic on Tower Bridge.

It is the judges who have decided that divorce settlements must be equalised so a wife can get a bigger share of money she has not earned. It is the judges who have given legal status to the pre-nup, introducing to the law the assumption that marriage is not for life.

Shall I take it in stages?

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 was enacted by Parliament. That tells the judiciary how it must determine divorces and applications ancillary to divorce i.e. financial applications. It permits the granting of divorce on the ground of adultery or other marital misbehaviour, and a divorce cannot be granted unless some marital behaviour is proven or accepted (except in separation cases). The Act also gives judges a broad discretion to make up their own mind about the division of assets based on the individual circumstances of each case. Parliament did not have to do this, but politicians decided this was the best way to achieve a good outcome for divorcing couples. s25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 says the court must consider all the circumstances, and then proceeds to give some guidance as to the specific factors that must be taken into account. The only restriction on the circumstances that can properly be taken into account is in relation to marital misbehaviour ("conduct").

s25 ...the court shall in particular have regard to the following matters...

(g) ...the conduct of each of the parties, if that conduct is such that it would in the opinion of the court be inequitable to disregard it;

Judges have not interpreted this to mean that conduct should never be taken into account, since that would contrary to the wording of the statute. It is however true to say that it is rarely taken into account, and that it is even more rarely determinative.

So. It is politicians who have decided that the courts should take only limited account of adultery or other marital misbehaviour in financial matters.

Secondly. It is a matter of long established public policy that marriage is not a contract in any straightforward sense. As already explored the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 does not operate on the basis of a punitive approach to bad behaviour, no doubt for reasons of public policy also - for example because to adopt a punitive approach would likely result in a greater burden on the public purse when the punished had to fall upon the state for subsistence or accommodation, or because the child being cared for by such a person would be adversely affected by such a policy, or because it would simply be unfair for a party to be stripped of their assets or income as a result of wholly unrelated behaviour, or because it is simply impractical, undesirable and a poor use of resources for the court to attempt to determine disputed facts as to conduct or to apportion blame in any mathematically translatable way. Should the spouse who has been unfaithful as an escape from an intolerable and abusive home life be penalised?

Next:

"This is why a man who has to hand over a large slice of his income to an unfaithful ex-wife who is both living with a well-off partner and denying her former husband access to his children will sometimes feel driven to dress up as Batman and stop the traffic on Tower Bridge."

Note the paradigm gendered example chosen here. It is of course but one of many and varied tableaux which could have been portrayed. Batman is never unfaithful or abusive, or a bully. The wives are always unfaithful, scheming, venal and heartless. If only the bat girl could have the threat of punishment hanging over her perhaps she would not be so naughty. May I venture to suggest that the reason Batman often has to hand over a slice of his income is a) because he made a joint decision to create a life and he now has a duty to maintain that child, b) because Parliament has decided that he should do so under the child support provisions (as well as the MCA 1973), and c) because he is earning and has some money whereas his ex is probably not able to earn on the same level.

Bear with me. Last bit:

"It is the judges who have decided that divorce settlements must be equalised so a wife can get a bigger share of money she has not earned. It is the judges who have given legal status to the pre-nup, introducing to the law the assumption that marriage is not for life."

Whilst the tendency towards equality is not expressly stated in the legislation and is far closer to judge made law, it is nonetheless a consequence of the deliberate decision Parliament made to give the judiciary a very broad discretion when it enacted the MCA 1973. And that money "she has not earned"? Must I really spell out how repugnant and oversimplistic that is? So-called women's work of childraising and washing your the skid marks off your husbands pants has no monetary value in Daily Mail world, although of course many of us transgressive women are not doing much "Women's work" at all. We should be burnt as witches, but thankfully that part of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 did not make it through the Committee Stage in the Lords and was thus never enacted.

Pre-nups. Have. No. Legal. Status. They are one of the factors that are taken into account under the MCA - you know, that piece of judge-made legislation I've been going on about.

And the assumption that marriage is not for life - not that I wish to state the obvious but the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 is a piece of law ABOUT DIVORCE. It's a piece of law that tells you HOW TO GET DIVORCED. And other ways to END A MARRIAGE. It's hardly been invented by judges on a frolic of their own.

So much for judges "trashing divorce laws". Politicians may have failed to improve or amend them, and the judiciary has done the best it can with what it has been given, exercising discretion and responsiveness to the uniqueness of each case as it has been tasked to do - but if it ain't working the buck really stops with Parliament. But having made this broad and unfair swipe against judicial activism, Doughty is not above lauding a judge when it suits. Thus he opines that "it is left to Sir Paul to speak up for marriage, to condemn divorce, to point to the fragility of cohabitation, and to warn of the damage done to nearly four million children whose home life has to be settled by the courts."

Doughty conveniently forgets that many of the children whose home life has to be settled by the courts are the children of married parents (And goodness only knows where the 4million figure comes from - it sounds improbably high, even in these busy days - my guess would be it includes public law cases, in which case it also includes a sizeable number of children whose parents have not even separated at all).

Is this sort of moral crusade what Sir Paul Coleridge intended or wished for? I doubt it. Does he subscribe to all of the assumptions that are insinuated by this article? Almost certainly not. But is it surprising that a well intentioned campaign to promote marriage has been so easy to hijack or that it should become associated with what some might regard as unattractive and regressive approaches to gender roles and relationships"? Sadly not.