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Family Law

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06 NOV 2009

Divorce - a Disaster?

Baroness Ruth Deech, Gresham Professor of Law

My series of Gresham College lectures on family law this year has two interlocking themes. One is the connection between morality in public life and in private life. The other is the conflict in ideologies or demands that are placed on us in our private and public capacities. I have found these themes to be apt in divorce, maintenance, attitudes to cohabiting couples, gay marriage, cousin marriage and inter-generational relationships.

We are speaking in the year of financial collapse and of the gravest moral failings in our politicians. This year's Reith lecturer on Radio 4, Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard, addressed the moral failings in our public life, whether in the markets, in politics, in genetics or the control of pollution. He ascribed much of the general moral failing to a marketisation of everything. He said we tend to calculate costs and benefits instead of deciding on attitudes to situations. For example, how much do we value the reduction of carbon emissions, or in my case, the preservation of stable families? In the former case, if governments, intending to control carbon emission, decide to tackle it by the imposition of increased tax on big cars or extra payments from passengers for long haul flights, the consequent attitude to these activities is that the tax is simply the cost of running the car or taking the flight. But it does not stop the pollution by those who can pay and it tends to reduce the stigma attached to the activity for the payer says to himself, 'I have atoned for the pollution that I cause'. According to Professor Sandel:

'Letting countries buy the right to pollute would be like letting people pay to litter. We should try to strengthen, not weaken the moral stigma attached to despoiling the environment . . . Norms matter . . . In deciding how best to get global action on climate change, we have to activate a new environmental ethic, a new set of attitudes towards the planet we share.'

The same is true of marriage, children and divorce. Men are permitted, by law, to buy their way out of relationships and fatherhood, regardless of the damage and lasting hurt that they leave behind and which are not thereby lessened. To some extent, women may do the same in family law. One might even say that some of them market themselves!

To read the rest of this article, see November [2009] Family Law journal.

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