Government scraps plans to give co-habitees more rights

7 March 2008

Following lengthy consultations, the government has shelved plans to introduce legislation to protect the rights of unmarried couples in England and Wales.

The surprise move has angered lawyers who claim the move could spell further distress and financial hardship when relationships breakdown.

Shashi Sachdeva, a partner at law firm Thomas Eggar says reform is long overdue. “Now that gay couples can register their relationships in civil partnerships, heterosexual co-habiting couples are the one group of people who aren’t protected,” he explains.

Lawyers agree that one of the reasons the government has backtracked is a fear of undermining the institute of marriage. However, James Maguire, a partner at DWF Solicitors in Manchester, argues that this fails to represent the reality of society today.

“Whatever your political view, this ignores the cultural changes we have seen in this country. When we’re dealing with matrimonial cases today, we’re relying on laws that came into force in 1973, some two or three generations old.”

While many couples are fundamentally opposed to marriage, Maguire says he’s also seeing more couples where one party wants to marry but the other refuses.

This is leaving many people, particularly mothers who have given up work to raise a family, in a very vulnerable position. “We see lots of case where there’s a woman who has split up from her partner and is raising the children herself. At the moment she has no rights. Yes she can claim maintenance for her children, but this is limited and she cannot make any claim against her ex. In the worst case scenario she could be made homeless.”

The British Attitude survey revealed that as a nation we don’t know where we stand when it comes to co-habiting, with 51% of respondents still believing that cohabiting couples have rights as common law spouses. The same survey also found that nine out of 10 people think that cohabiting partners should be protected if they are in a long-term relationship, involves children and has involved one party sacrificing their career.

The rules regarding co-habitation in Scotland are very different to those in England and Wales. Provision for cohabiting couples north of the border has been in place since May 2006. Rachael Kelsey, a partner at Scottish law firm, Pagan Osborne, explained. "If you have lived with someone in Scotland you can apply to the courts for financial provision if your partner dies or the relationship breaks down."

It is widely thought that the government is watching to see how this new Scottish system fares, before it introduces new legislation in England and Wales. However, this could take time, according to Kelsey only one case has been been heard and a decision has yet to be reached.

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