With new official figures showing more and more couples are living together without being married, a leading family lawyers’ organisation has said this once again highlights the urgent need to give cohabiting couples legal rights.
The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures revealed that the number of households containing one cohabiting couple increased from 1.8 million in 2001 to 2.3 million in 2011 – a rise of nearly 30 percent.
The statistics prompted a call from Resolution, which represents 6,500 family law professionals in England and Wales, for changes to the law so that unmarried couples do not suffer unnecessarily should they separate.
Last year, Supreme Court judge Baroness Hale highlighted the protection offered to cohabiting couples in Scotland, in contrast to those in England in a Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gow v Grant. She commented: “English and Welsh cohabitants and children deserve no less.”
Steve Kirwan, who chairs Resolution’s cohabitation committee said: “The current situation for people who live together in England and Wales, more often than not, creates injustice and hardship.
“Regardless of your views on marriage, our current law fails to reflect the way people are choosing to live their lives. Sadly, children, who were not party to their parents’ decision not to marry, can often be affected.
“Despite the ‘common law’ marriage myth, it is possible to live together with someone for decades and even to have children together, and then simply walk away without taking any responsibility for a former partner’s welfare. That is simply wrong.”
Resolution is calling for new laws in England and Wales for couples who have lived together for five years or more, or for shorter periods in cases of exceptional hardship. For cohabiting couples with children, the law would offer protection regardless of how long they have lived together.
These couples would have an automatic right to apply for certain financial orders if they separate. If a couple wished to opt out of this provision, they could do so by way of a written agreement.
However, with the government saying in September 2011 that it did not intend to reform cohabitation in this Parliamentary term, which ends in 2015, Resolution’s call for ministers to revisit the issue seems unlikely to succeed.
The current state of the law does, however, reinforce the value of couples who prefer to live together because they are not ready to marry or enter a civil partnership – or prefer not to do so – entering cohabitation agreements and putting wills in place to protect their property rights in the event that the relationship breaks down or one of them dies.
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