The Labour Party has announced plans to change the current law on cohabitation if it wins power at the next General Election.

Speaking at the party conference in Liverpool, Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry said a victorious Labour government would introduce new rights for couples who live together without getting married. If the relationship broke down or one partner passed away, under the plans the other party would have the right to financial assistance and a share in the couple’s property. Currently cohabitees have no such rights under English law and can only make financial claims under very limited circumstances. This disadvantages the lower earning partner and can cause real financial difficulties, especially if the affected individual subscribed to the widely held but mistaken belief that there is such a thing as “common law marriage” in England and Wales. Women are statistically more likely to be affected by the current lack of cohabitation rights than men.

According to figures from the National Census, close to a quarter of all couples living in England and Wales were cohabiting in 2021, compared to just one fifth ten years prior – and by 2022, there were an estimated 3.6 million such couples, making them the fastest growing family type in the UK. Over the last ten years, around 75 per cent of all new families have formed around a cohabiting couple.

The Shadow Attorney General said she had been inspired by similar cohabitation legislation already in force in countries like New Zealand, Ireland and Scotland. In the former jurisdiction, the parties in a cohabiting relationship of more than three years have the same rights to property as married couples.

Resolution Chair Jo Edwards welcomed the Labour announcement, saying:

“This is a hugely welcome development and one that should be welcomed by cohabiting couples, together with practitioners who see the significant financial hardship caused by our current, out of date law.”

Resolution is an organisation of solicitors dedicated to promoting a non-confrontational approach to family cases and to campaigning for legal reform.

Jo Edwards continued:

“Cohabiting couples currently have little to no legal protection when they separate, with no safety net in place to protect those left financially vulnerable if their relationship ends. …This is regardless of the level of commitment shown, including the length of their relationship or the birth of children.”

Her colleague Graeme Fraser, Chair of the Resolution Cohabitation Committee, added:

“We know that families come in different shapes and sizes. An increasing number of couples are either consciously choosing not to marry, or, for a variety of reasons, simply don’t make (or don’t have) that choice. But despite the prevalence of cohabitation, the law remains complex, outdated, and unfair.”