January 1, 2014
A prominent High Court judge, Sir Paul Coleridge, has been reprimanded by the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, and found guilty of ‘judicial misconduct’.
It is a serious ruling. Has Sir Paul been consorting with members of the criminal classes? Was he caught driving under the influence? Or perhaps he has delivered a spectacularly wrong-headed judgment?
The answer is that he has done none of these things, or anything at all reprehensible. The Judicial Conduct and Investigations Office, which acts on behalf of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, has taken exception to Sir Paul’s views on marriage, of which he is strongly in favour.
You may think he is accused of proselytising his opinions during court cases, but that is not the charge. No, Sir Paul has fallen foul of the authorities because he gave an interview to The Times newspaper almost exactly a year ago, and wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph last June. For these little acts of candour he must be punished.
He suggested during the interview that the Government had spent too much energy in championing gay marriage, which he thinks is of minority concern, and too little energy in supporting married couples. But he emphasised that his independent charity, the Marriage Foundation, did not take a stance on gay marriage.
In the Telegraph article he took issue with a report which suggested that stable couples tend, whether married or not, to do equally well. He argued that this is beside the point. The crucial issue is that co-habiting couples are far more likely to break up than married ones, with all the resulting harm to children.
Until quite recently Sir Paul’s beliefs would have been shared by most judges. (He thinks they still are, but I have my doubts.) His views are empirical rather than sternly moralistic. As a judge in the family courts for more than a decade, he has seen at first hand the devastating consequences of family breakdown.
As he put it in a recent article he wrote for the Mail (for which he hasn’t been censured, or at least not yet), ‘study after study’ has shown that ‘the single most vital factor, by far, in the successful development of children is a committed, healthy relationship between their parents.’
And such a relationship, he observed, is far more likely to last if the couple are married. According to research carried out by his pro-marriage organisation cited in his article, ‘cohabiting parents account for only 19 per cent of all couples — but the separation of cohabiting parents makes up 48 per cent of all family breakdowns’.
What alarms me is that an intelligent man who has been presented with more evidence of family breakdown in his professional career than most of us, and who has studied and thought about the reasons for its rapid increase over recent years, should have had his knuckles publicly rapped by the Judicial Conduct and Investigations Office.
It goes without saying that judges should not make political remarks, but Sir Paul’s comments cannot be so construed. He was expressing his considered beliefs — beliefs that would have been held by about 99 per cent of sentient beings until quite recently.