On Friday, 12 December, the Cohabitation Rights Bill, introduced by Lords Marks, had its second reading in the House of Lords and passed through to Committee stage. As strong supporters of the movement to give cohabiting couples better legal protection, Resolution welcomes Lord Marks’ proposals and the onwards progress of the Bill as important first steps towards cohabitation law reform, but argues that reform needs to be taken even further.
Steve Kirwan, who leads Resolution’s work on cohabitation law reform, commented:
'Ultimately, the law needs to reflect the standards of modern society, and in the case of cohabitation, it does not. More couples are living together than ever before, with an estimated 2,859,000 cohabiting households in Britain – that’s a significant portion of the country who are currently served by outdated and unfair laws. The current law on cohabitation is in desperate need of change and we believe that even Lord Marks’ bill, whilst welcome, does not go far enough to address the inequality in the current system.'
Resolution proposes a new cohabitation law, which encompasses Lord Marks’ proposals but goes further, to create a system that is genuinely fair for cohabiting couples. Under Resolution’s proposals, cohabitants meeting eligibility criteria indicating a committed relationship, such as having lived together as a couple for a minimum period or having a child together, would have a right to apply for certain financial orders if they separate. This right would be automatic unless the couple chooses to ‘opt out’.
Steve Kirwan notes:
'An alternative approach to that proposed by Lord Marks would be to allow the court to make the same types of orders as they do currently on divorce, but on a very different basis. There should be no presumption of equal sharing of assets. Rather, the court should be required to make an order to reflect the actual contributions made each party and to compensate them accordingly. Including provision for time-limited maintenance might also be considered, with a presumption that the couple should be financially self-supporting as soon as possible.'
'Crucially,' Mr Kirwan adds, 'Lord Marks’ proposals do not include payments for child care costs to enable a primary carer parent to work. This is a major obstacle for separating cohabiting families and can be a factor in driving some into poverty and state dependence.'
Graeme Fraser from Resolution's cohabitation committee notes that until cohabitation law reform progresses, caution is advised, commenting:
'In the continued absence of automatic legal protection, cohabitants should seek legal advice about their position at significant points in their relationship, not just when the relationship breaks down, but when a property is being purchased for their occupation, and to ensure fairness on death.'
Resolution will release a Manifesto in early 2015, setting out proposals for a reformed law on cohabitation.