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Two news stories have hit our desks this week, which illustrate rather differing approaches to resolving the complex issues facing families today.

The first story emanates from the Marriage Foundation, which is an organisation aiming to be a “national champion for marriage”. Its stated aims are to seek to influence the way individuals, couples and society as a whole think about forming, maintaining and ending relationships, and it promotes access to relationship support and education, and a better public understanding of the nature and benefits of marriage. Fundamentally, it is a pro-marriage lobbying organisation.

The Foundation has been in the news again with the results of some research which claims that marriage rates are falling dramatically amongst the middle classes.

The press release on the research contains some rather dramatic language. It says we have “a concerning spread in the collapse of marriage” and, worse still, we are told that marriage already “faces extinction” among low earners, and the middle classes are “fast on course to follow them”. So is marriage facing an extinction event akin to that which wiped out the dinosaurs, are the middle classes all jumping into the ‘chaos’ of the unmarried family, or might the situation not be quite so perilous?

Apparently 59% of middle earning parents with young children were married in 2012, compared to 84% back in 1994. However this statistic represents quite a narrow economic band (the fifth and sixth decile by household income). If one looks at the summary of the report it is clear that 77% and 87% of the top four wealth brackets (of families with children under 5) still comprise married units, so perhaps the ‘crisis’ is not so acute. The report also shows that marriage rates are falling across all economic brackets: with smaller drops in the richest and poorest households, and bigger drops across the range of middle incomes.

The second bit of research , linked to the first, claims that mothers with young children are four times more likely to be married if they are wealthy than if they are poor. Among mothers with children under five, the research has found that 87% of those with household incomes over £45,000 are married compared to 24% of those with incomes under £14,000. A university degree increases the chances of you being married too: 83% of mothers with degrees were married in 2006, compared to only 52% of mothers without a university education. The research does not offer comparable figures for fathers with or without degrees or ranked according to household income.

Falling marriage rates are not a new phenomenon, and social attitudes have changed considerably over the past decades towards greater acceptance of all forms of family set-up, so perhaps this research is meant to act as a rallying cry to the middle classes to pull their socks up and march down the aisle pronto. We’re not sure this is the best way for everyone – in fact, what we support is promoting better understanding of the legal consequences of marriage and/or living together and/or having children with someone, and a move towards legal recognition of unmarried partnerships that would address the economic imbalances suffered as a result if those partnerships don’t last. We support freedom of choice, better information, and a legal safety-net for all.

A more progressive approach comes from Resolution (the national organisation for family lawyers, of which we are all members at CFLP) which has launched a major two-year study exploring how the current law on the ground for divorce and civil partnership dissolution operates in practice. This is part of its campaign for the introduction of a no-fault divorce, which was one of the key issues raised in its manifesto earlier this year (we wrote about it here). Resolution remain concerned that petitions that rely on apportioning some blame risk creating or inflaming conflict and undermining the opportunity for people to resolve disputes outside of court. The organisation’s concern is shared by many, including the Law Commission who, back in 1990, set out six problems with fault-based divorce, including that the law was confusing and misleading, discriminatory and unjust, distorted bargaining positions, provoked unnecessary hostility, made things worse for children by exacerbating parental conflict whilst at the same time doing nothing to save marriages.

The research project is being conducted by the University of Exeter and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The new study comprises three main elements: (1) a public attitudes survey designed to explore attitudes to the ground for divorce and views on law reform of a representative sample of 2,000 adults and 1,000 recently divorced adults; (2) a court scrutiny study into how the courts investigate petitions alleging adultery or unreasonable behaviour; and (3) a petition study which will explore how divorce and dissolution petitions are produced and with what effect on the parties, which is designed to provide an in-depth understanding of the petitioning process from the perspective of the parties and lawyers who advise them.

It is hoped that the results of the study will inform debate about whether and how the law might be reformed, and Resolution are seeking assistance from members of the organisation and their clients whose cases will be tracked over the course of a year and others whose opinions will be sought through focus groups. If you’re interested in participating, let us know.

So there we are, two news stories: one predicting institutional extinction and one seeking facts to support its campaign to help families part with dignity. Can you tell where our sympathies lie?

As always, if you would like to make an appointment to see Simon, Gail, Adam, Sue or Tricia, please call us on 01223 443333.