Elderly couples should not be split up in care homes because of the risk of dying from a broken heart, ruled a high court judge.

Sir James Munby, president of the family division of the High Court, said in an impassioned speech that it was "simply inhumanity" to place couples in different care homes when "people who may have been together for 30, 40 or maybe 50 years are separated in their final years."

"We do know that people die from what colloquially we call a broken heart," Sir Munby said at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass).

"It is very striking. One reads ... cases where one spouse, after a 60 or 50-year marriage, has died and the other dies two days later. That is not chance or coincidence, I suspect," he added.

Sir Munby said that social workers needed to show "more common decency" when it came to placing couples, and should prioritise their emotional needs over arbitrary health and safety concerns.

Using the example of an elderly couple challenged by a steep staircase, the judge argued: "Merely demonstrating that if you let that person go on living in that house there is a foreseeable and appreciable risk that one day a neighbour or carer will come in and find them with a broken neck at the bottom of the stairs — is that sufficient justification for making them leave, if it is going to make them thoroughly miserable?"

Voices from the likes of Age UK agreed with the legal professional's comments. "Even if the local council is arranging and paying for care, they cannot just tell someone where they have to live," said Caroline Abrahams, the director of the charity.

Munby's comments have come after a couple in South Shields, Ray and Jessie Lorrison, were separated at the age of 95 and 88.

The pair, who had been together for 70 years, were allegedly only allowed to stay in the same care home after 21,595 members of the public expressed their outrage and signed a change.org petition.

"Councils do not and cannot 'send' people to residential care without applying for safeguards," countered Margaret Willcox of Adass. "There are always complex issues to consider, such as how to make this work where relationships are abusive, or when one person has needs the other can't cope with."

Global development charity Tearfund suggested that the UK could benefit from looking at global models of elderly care.

In a celebration of the UN Day of Families, the charity said that communities in Malawi are seeing older members of the generation being adopted by great grandchildren which can help elderly members of the family that are struggling without the presence of their partner.