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The Rights of Cohabitants: When and how will the law be reformed?

Date:30 APR 2009

Edward Hess Barrister, Harcourt Chambers and Deputy District Judge at the Principal Registry of the Family Division

Let us take an example of a family journey. At age 24, Andrew starts an engineering business and buys a house in his sole name with a large mortgage, the repayments on which he is able to fund from his business income. At age 28, Andrew meets and falls in love with Belinda. Belinda is aged 25 and has made a good start in her career as a journalist. She moves into Andrew's house, selling her own flat, which has very little equity. She soon becomes pregnant and, with Andrew's encouragement and support, gives up her job to look after the baby. She has three children quite quickly and successfully devotes her life to bringing them up to adulthood. Twenty-five years pass. Andrew is now 53 and Belinda is 50. The children are all out of education. Andrew's business has thrived and is now worth £1,000,000 and provides him with an income of £100,000 a year. Over the last twenty years Andrew has also been able to fund a pension for himself, now with a CETV of £300,000. Andrew and Belinda still live in Andrew's original house. It is now worth £750,000, is mortgage-free and remains in Andrew's sole name. Belinda has no significant savings or pension and has not worked since the birth of her first child. Her journalistic skills and qualifications are hugely out of date. It has never occurred to Belinda that the relationship might break down or that Andrew will not support her for life. In any event, Belinda vaguely assumes, surely the law would provide her with a remedy if Andrew let her down? Andrew then falls for the younger charms of 22-year-old Charlotte. He asks Belinda to leave his house so that Charlotte can move in.

If Andrew and Belinda had been married at any time in the course of this relationship then Belinda would be entitled to go to court and ask for half of everything: certainly half the house and the pension and possibly half the business as well. She may also receive ongoing spousal maintenance payments to meet her outgoings.

As Andrew and Belinda were never married then Belinda's prospects will be very different. She may very well have no remedy at all. She certainly has no rights in relation to the pension or the business or to ask for maintenance. At best, she will have an uncertain claim to a portion of the house.

The difference between the two outcomes is stark and plainly unjust but such is the current state of the law in England and Wales.

To read the rest of this article, see May [2009] Family Law journal.

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