Page last updated at 13:50 GMT, Saturday, 5 April 2008 14:50 UK

Families in meltdown, judge says

Child in silhouette
Mr Justice Coleridge says action is needed to halt a "downward spiral".

A senior family court judge has hit out at the government over what he says is an "epidemic" of family failure that will have "catastrophic" effects.

In a speech, Mr Justice Coleridge, a Family Division judge for England and Wales, warned the results could be as destructive as global warming.

He said ministers are not doing enough about a "meltdown" in family life.

The government defended its record on the family and said most children were "safe, healthy, and achieve well".

In a speech in Brighton to lawyers from Resolution, formerly the Solicitors' Family Law Association, the judge warned of a "cancerous" increase in broken families and said the government must take "comprehensive action".

The judge said those who witnessed the goings-on inside family courts would be aware of it being a "never ending carnival of human misery - a ceaseless river of human distress".

Almost all of society's social ills can be traced directly to the collapse of the family life
Mr Justice Coleridge

Using very strong language, Mr Justice Coleridge warned of a bleak future if the UK did not address the problems he described.

He said "the effects of family breakdown" would, within the next 20 years, be "as marked and as destructive as the effects of global warming".

"We are experiencing a period of family meltdown whose effects will be as catastrophic as the meltdown of the ice caps," said the judge, who added that its effects pose "as big a threat to the future of our society as terrorism, street crime or drugs".

Mr Justice Coleridge said the collapse of family life is at a scale and severity that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago.

'Broken' families

"What is certain is that almost all of society's social ills can be traced directly to the collapse of the family life," he said.

However, Mr Justice Coleridge, who heads family courts in the south west of England, did not criticise single parents directly.

"I am not saying every broken family produces dysfunctional children but I am saying that almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family.

"What is government doing to recognise and face up to the emerging situation? The answer is: very little and nothing like enough.

"It is fiddling whilst Rome burns."

Mr Justice Coleridge outlined a number of recommendations to improve the societal ills he described.

The suggestions included placing family justice at the top of the political agenda; allocating more staffing and money to family issues; better funding for contact centres to aid family cohesion; and extensive reforms of the laws relating to divorce, cohabitation and financial relief.

On the issue of legal reforms, Mr Justice Coleridge said divorce law and those relating to financial orders were "last properly reformed two generations ago, in the mid-60s, when society was altogether different.

"The current laws are not suited to modern social mores of the way we live now."

'Challenging circumstances'

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Families and Schools said: "Most children and young people in England today are safe, healthy, and achieve well."

She added: "We do not agree that there has been a breakdown in the family - 70% of families are headed by a married couple.

"And a recent BBC poll suggests that three-quarters of people in Britain are optimistic about the future of their families, 24% higher than when the same question was asked in 1964."

The spokeswoman said the Children's Plan put children and families at the centre of everything the government did.

Meanwhile, more than 250m was being spent developing local services for parents in England, focusing on those in "challenging circumstances".

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for children, schools and families, said the judge was highlighting trends dating back at least 20 years.

"This government is not the source of the family breakdown problem but policies such as the operation of tax credits have made it more difficult for some families to bring up children in stable, two-parent households," he said.

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