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Cohabitation law reform back on the agenda

Date:18 SEP 2013

The Liberal Democrats have this week passed a policy on cohabitation rights, seeking to provide cohabiting unmarried couples with fair and reasonable redress on separation and on death.

According to survey results published by Resolution this week, three quarters of MPs believe that greater legal protection is needed for unmarried cohabiting couples on separation.

Resolution, the body representing 6,500 family law professionals in England and Wales, has been campaigning for a change in the law to reflect this increasing demographic group, and welcomed the recognition from MPs that reform is needed.

Responding to the survey's findings, Steve Kirwan, who leads Resolution's work on cohabitation, said:

"This poll of MPs confirms the findings of a public survey in 2008, in which 51% of respondents believed, incorrectly, that cohabitants had the same rights as married couples.

And yet the current situation for people who live together in England and Wales, more often than not, creates injustice and hardship.

This isn't about whether you believe people should be married or not, this is about ensuring that people are aware of their legal rights - and that fact that more than two thirds of MPs identify this as a problem clearly points to the need for reform.

Despite the myth that there is such a thing as "common law" marriage - which hasn't existed since 1753 - 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, it needs to change, and it needs to change now."

2.9m people were cohabiting in the UK in 1996. In 2013, that number has almost doubled to 5.6m.

The Law Commission reported on this issue in detail 6 years ago in 2007 and proposed that cohabiting couples or couples who have a child together should have a statutory general entitlement to apply for financial relief on separation, with a minimum duration of cohabitation requirement set by statute of between 2 and 5 years. Those proposals were not implemented by the Government.

In her 2011 statement on the government's response to the Law Commission report, Law Commissioner Professor Elizabeth Cooke said:

"We note ... that reform will not be implemented during the current Parliament. We hope that implementation will not be delayed beyond the early days of the next Parliament, in view of the hardship and injustice caused by the current law. The prevalence of cohabitation, and of the birth of children to couples who live together, means that the need for reform of the law can only become more pressing over time."

The Liberal Democrat's motion includes proposals based on the two Law Commission reports of 2007 and 2011 (on intestacy and family provision claims on death).

Regular news and updates from Resolution can be read in the Family Law journal.