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ONS statistics show cohabiting couple families are on the rise

Date:9 NOV 2017
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The Office of National Statistics has released its Families and Households in the UK 2017 report. The report covers trends in living arrangements in the UK including families, people living alone and people in shared accommodation, broken down by size and type of household.

The report highlights that cohabiting couple families are the second largest family type, and the fastest growing. Lawyers have long warned of the need for greater awareness of the lack of legal protection for cohabiting couples, who do not have the same legal rights as married couples. The campaign for a change in the law in ongoing.

The report’s key findings also include:

  • In 2017 there were 19 million families in the UK, a 15% increase from 16.6 million in 1996.
  • With 12.9 million families, the married or civil partner couple family remains the most common in 2017.

  • In the UK there were 27.2 million households in 2017, resulting in an average household size of 2.4.

  • In 2017, there were 3.9 million people living alone aged 16 to 64; a larger proportion were male (58.5%); similarly there were 3.8 million people living alone aged 65 and over but the larger proportion (66.5%) were female.

  • Young males were more likely to be living with their parents than young females; around 32% of males aged 20 to 34 were living with their parents compared with 20% of females aged 20 to 34 in 2017.

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Emily Knipe, Population Statistics Division, Office for National Statistics, said:

‘In 2017, the most common family type in the UK was the married or civil partner couple family. Opposite sex couples were most likely to be in married couple families whereas same sex couples were most likely to be in cohabiting couple families. This is likely to be because civil partnerships and marriages between same sex couples in particular, are relatively new legal union statuses.’

Hannah Saxe, an associate in Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth’s family team and a Resolution accredited specialist for cohabitation law who sits on Resolution’s National Cohabitation Committee, said:

‘[The ONS statistics show that] the second largest family type is the cohabiting couple family (where a couple are living together but are not married or in a civil partnership) at 3.3 million families. The fastest growing family type has been the cohabiting couple family, where the numbers of these families has more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017. This is most likely due to the fact that many couples now chose to live together rather than marry, or they live together first before they marry, especially if they are younger.

A common misconception amongst cohabiting couples is that by living together they are considered to be their partner’s common law husband or wife, and that this will allow them to make financial claims for themselves against their partner if the relationship breaks down. There needs to be greater awareness of the fact that there is currently no such thing as common law marriage under English law, and that cohabiting couples do not have the same legal rights as married couples.

In fact, whilst it is possible for unmarried parents to make financial claims against one another on behalf of their children, there is very little legal protection for them as individuals should they separate, which can create injustice and hardship, especially for the financially weaker partner.

The position is different in Scotland, where unmarried couples who live together do have legal rights upon separation. It is time for England and Wales to catch up and bring the law into line with how an ever increasing number of couples are choosing to live their lives, so that cohabiting families are afforded better legal protection on relationship breakdown.

Whilst organisations such as Resolution campaign tirelessly for a change to the law in England and Wales this is yet to happen, although The Cohabitation Rights Bill, which addresses the rights of cohabiting couples, is in the early stages of being considered by Parliament. Whether this Bill will be given the attention it deserves is yet to be seen as Brexit dominates the proceedings.

Resolution’s Cohabitation Awareness Raising Week takes place 27 November-1 December.’