Lucinda Connell, Divorce and Children’s specialist family lawyer, of Major Family Law, Newcastle and Hexham’s leading specialist law firm states the Cohabitation Rights Bill introduced by Lord Marks – which gives cohabiting couples better legal protection – had its second reading in the House of Lords earlier this month and has passed through to Committee stage. Resolution, the association of specialist family lawyers, welcomes the proposals and the progress of the Bill as important first steps towards cohabitation law reform, but argues that reform needs to be taken even further.
Despite there being an estimated 2,859,000 cohabiting households in Britain, the laws relating to unmarried couples are both complex and outdated. It is clear that the law in this area needs to be overhauled to reflect the standards of modern society. 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, who leads Resolution’s work on cohabitation law reform, comments:
“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.” He adds “crucially, 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.”
Until cohabitation law reform progresses, caution is advised. In the continued absence of automatic legal protection, cohabitants are urged to seek legal advice about their position at significant points in their relationship; not simply upon a relationship breakdown but at other key times such as when a property is being purchased for their occupation.