Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Marriage Foundation - heterosexual manifesto?

The Marriage Foundation and the Marginalisation of Lesbian and Gay relationships


This week Sir Paul Coleridge launched The Marriage Foundation -
In this blog I shall offer five arguments as to why, in my opinion, despite the apparently good intentions of its founding members, the existence of this organisation is not a good thing for the people of England and Wales.


On Monday 30.4.2012, John Humphreys introduced Sir Paul in an interview on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 with the following words: -
"It's not unusual for senior judges to make controversial comments in court when they're passing judgment.  It is unusual for them to launch a campaign. That is what Sir Paul Coleridge, one of the top judges in the Family Court Division is doing today - a campaign to protect marriage.  He says it's the gold standard of relationships and it's needed because Britain has an addiction to divorce and family breakdown and that is one of the most destructive scourges of our time."
The Marriage Foundation website highlights Sir Paul's responses here
In summary (quoting that website), Sir Paul said:
"I happen to think that the family judiciary have a contribution to make to this debate. Most of us have watched as the situation has gradually got more and more appalling and out of control and there comes a time when it is, I think, irresponsible to remain quiet".
"In terms of the impact that family breakdown is having on society, nobody - and I emphasise that - nobody has the experience that the family judiciary have."
"This is now happening across Britain - and indeed Europe and North America - on a scale we have never seen before and the impact it has on the whole of society is very, very real and dramatic and we need to highlight it and do something about it."
"Sir Paul insisted that he was not mounting a moral campaign but simply wanted to set out the facts in a “non-preachy, non-didactic way."
The website has a FAQ section  One of the frequently asked questions is extracted below: -

"Is the MF engaged in the current debate around the definition of marriage?"

There is a long paragraph provided as an answer, which is effectively summarised by the words: - 

"No. It is not what we are about…. we have nothing we want to say in the current debate."

Membership of the Marriage Foundation

The website lists c. 38 members of the senior judiciary, as supporters, most if not all of whom hear family cases (i.e. disputes about matrimonial finance and about parenting) on a day to day basis.

The civil partnership / marriage debate

At the same time as the launch of this foundation, there is a long-running wider debate about - effectively - parity and equal rights arising from the labels and legal structures which apply to committed long-term relationships, be they straight or gay/lesbian partnerships:  Straight couples are seeking civil partnerships ( and gay or lesbian couples want to marry (;

The difficult question

So what message does the existence of an organisation which aims to be a 
"national champion (advocate) for marriage, strengthening the institution for the benefit of children, adults and society as a whole"
send to "society as a whole"?


In my opinion, these are some of the problems which are raised by the existence of this organisation and its rather surprising cohort of founding members:

1. Perception of the judiciary

It is submitted that the Marriage Foundation is a project with a political aim. It is, however, created and supported by members of the senior judiciary.  Judges are appointed in order to hear evidence, and on the basis of that evidence to make decisions.  

When Sir Paul told Radio 4 that "the situation has gradually got more and more appalling and out of control", this is a statement of his personal opinion.  Judges are not appointed to have opinions, however well-intentioned, about political matters.  A judge applies the law, not his or her own opinion, to the facts. 

England and Wales benefits from a separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers.  This separation exists, amongst other reasons, in order to preserve the independence of the judiciary.

Imagine, for example, that a member of the public (a litigant) with a family dispute appears before one of the named "founding supporters" of this institution in the high court, or the county court.  Various of the founding supporters sit regularly at the High Court, the Principal Registry of the Family Division, the Luton County Court and the Watford County Court, to name but four.  

Imagine either that: -
a) that litigant's relationship with the other parent of a child has broken down because of a new relationship with somebody of the same sex; or 
b) the litigant is attempting to resolve a parenting dispute with a same-sex former partner; or 
c) the litigant is involved in financial remedy (matrimonial finance, formerly ancillary relief) proceedings following a break-up of a relationship in which the litigant has started a new relationship with somebody of the same sex.

These scenarios are not uncommon.  

Would litigants feel as though they would get a fair hearing if they were aware that the Judge was a member of the Marriage Foundation, which is silent as to the merits of gay and lesbian relationships?  

In scenario (c) above, would the litigant be confident that in apportioning matrimonial assets, the Judge would not have at the back of his or her mind a personal view about "conduct" which would have a material effect (despite case-law which clearly states that it is irrelevant) on asset distribution?  In scenarios (a) and (b) above, how would that litigant feel, knowing that the Judge was part of an organisation which promoted heterosexual marriage?

2. Message being sent to young people

In my opinion, the existence of an organisation which wishes to emphasise the benefits of stable, long-term relationships, but which elects to be silent about the benefits of gay and lesbian relationships does not send a positive message to young people in England and Wales.

Love is a good thing.  Gay and lesbian relationships are a good thing. 

Gay men and lesbians are as good or bad as their straight counterparts.  

Young people need to be educated as to the existence of gay men and lesbians, that sexual orientation is not a choice, and that gay men and lesbians ought to have equal rights in society because they form a substantial minority in that society.  

This organisation promotes, by way of contrast, a single agenda, which does not assist in educating young people - who will become parents in the future - about equal rights and about the importance of diversity in society, and validity of same-sex parenting.

3. Minimisation of the benefits to children of parenting by same-sex couples

There is an increasing number of gay and lesbian parents in England and Wales.  These parents often adopt children.  They also frequently have their own children. Some of the children are children born by arrangement with friends (egg or sperm donors).  These are valid parenting relationships.  In the case of adopted children, it is often the case that these parents have been chosen by the court instead of potential straight parents because they have been deemed by a social worker and then the court to be able to offer better parenting to adopted children.

The Marriage Foundation does not acknowledge the benefits of these parenting scenarios, and as such does not reflect the reality in society or recognise as valid many, many loving parenting scenarios.

4. Likely inability to achieve its stated aims

What can this foundation hope to achieve? Are people really going to find that its existence encourages them either to get married when they otherwise wouldn't, or not to split up when they otherwise would? In the latter case, is this actually in fact worse for any children of the relationship than if the couple were to separate?  The approach of the Marriage Foundation is, it is submitted, too simplistic, and does not mirror reality.

5. Risk of bolstering homophobic views of conservative religious groups

There are many well-funded and vocal religious organisations which support a pro-heterosexual / anti-homosexual model of family life.  There is a real risk that the specious arguments of these groups will be buoyed up by a superficial reading of the work of an organisation which is founded by a small group of influential high court judges.  The silence of the Marriage Foundation as to the benefits of gay and lesbian relationships may potentially be used to bolster otherwise threadbare arguments of dogmatic or fundamentalist religious organisations.

It would be very helpful indeed if The Marriage Foundation could nail its colours to the mast with respect to lesbian and gay relationships.  If it does not, there is a risk that its existence will drive a coach and horses through the important equal rights legislation which has been cascading through society since the early 1990s.

It is of course an obvious point that relationship breakdown is bad for children. But, in my opinion, the Marriage Foundation does not provide the solution to the very real problems which concern Sir Paul and his colleagues.

Runway Runaway
5th May 2012

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