The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, which holds Government to account on equality law and policy, has published an important report calling for reform of the law relating to cohabitation.
The report points out that since 1996 the number of couples in the UK living together as cohabitants has more than doubled to 3.6 million, and now represents around one in five couples living together.
Despite these numbers, says the report, a lack of legal protections means that, upon relationship breakdown, the financially weaker partner has no automatic rights to the family home, or indeed to any form of financial support from their former partner.
The MPs also expressed concern at the problems that can occur on the death of a partner in a cohabiting relationship, including difficulties accessing a survivor’s pension and even keeping the family home.
And one of the biggest issues that the report found was the common misconception that cohabiting couples automatically gain rights equal to a marriage or civil partnership – the so-called ‘common law marriage myth’.
The report points out that a 2019 British Social Attitudes Survey showed that almost half of the total population of England and Wales wrongly assumed that cohabitants living together form a ‘common law marriage’.
This erroneous belief, says the report, can have ‘significant consequences’, with many falsely believing they have legal protections which turn out to be non-existent.
The report makes three key recommendations to address these issues:
1. That the Government should implement an opt-out cohabitation scheme, as was proposed by the Law Commission in 2007. The scheme would give basic legal rights to cohabitants upon relationship breakdown, where they had had a child together or had lived together for a specified number of years. The couple would be able, if they wished, to opt out of the scheme.
2. That the Government urgently launch a public information campaign to highlight the legal distinctions between marriage, civil partnership, and choosing to live as cohabiting partners.
3. That cohabitants be given similar rights to married couples and civil partners upon the death of a partner.
Commenting upon the report the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP, said:
“The reality of modern relationships is that many of us choose – for a vast number of reasons – not to get married, even when in a committed, long-term relationship. This number is ever growing, and it is high time that the Government recognised this shift in social norms, which has been taking place for well over 30 years.
“The law has been left decades behind, as far as cohabitation is concerned, and this is leaving financially vulnerable individuals in precarious situations upon relationship breakdown or the death of a partner. It is completely unfair that these individuals have inferior protections to their married or civilly partnered peers. Deciding not to marry is a valid choice, and not one which should be penalised in law.”
It is indeed high time that these important reforms were implemented. Let us hope that the Government gives the report the attention it deserves.
Meanwhile, if you have been in a cohabiting relationship your rights will be very limited. If you do wish to make a claim in respect of property or on behalf of a child then you should seek the advice of an expert family lawyer. We can find you an expert that works with you on our digital platform. For more information, call us on 020 3904 0506, or click here, and fill in the form.
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