Cohabitation and our cowardly lawmakers

Cohabitation|Family Law|Stowe Family Law|March 11th 2008

Cut the red tape: why won’t politicians help cohabiting couples?

I saw Baroness Thatcher on TV three times this weekend. I saw her twice on the Spitting Image reruns and laughed at the satirical takes on the absolute power she wielded over her fellow politicians. Then I saw her on the news, aged 82, leaving hospital. She was clearly very frail, but determined to walk unaided, despite her age and infirmity. Agree with her politics or not – and sometimes I did not – her spirit and fearlessness remain admirable.

Following last week’s debacle over cohabitation, I wish that our present leaders had such backbone! More than ever, I am convinced that in its dying years, our Government has become bogged down in red tape and paper-shuffling.

We have learned that the Government won’t be changing the law for cohabitants. Plans to do so are being held “in abeyance” while we wait and see how the Scots fare. This is because the Scots, who certainly don’t defer to opinions expressed in English media, have already changed their own law.

The message from Whitehall is, as usual, wrapped up in bureaucratic jargon and more red tape. Now taxpayers’ money is to be wasted on a futile “comparison” exercise; after that, I suppose, the subject will be quietly put to bed.

For goodness sake!

Why such fright? Despite the promise that marriage is for life, a married couple can still go to court and end their marriage. When this happens, the law will uncomplainingly adjudicate and resolve all issues between husband and wife.

So what’s so much worse about legislating for cohabitation? We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Tens of thousands of couples are cohabiting. My firm is only one of thousands throughout England and Wales – and I can guarantee that at least one cohabitation breakdown is dealt with in my office every day.

Marriage is going out of fashion. As fewer couples decide to marry, and fewer couples divorce, an increasing number of couples live together. There are, conveniently, no statistics for cohabitating couples whose relationships end.

Legally, married couples cannot divorce before arrangements for any children are first agreed. Yet tens of thousands of children never come before the court because their estranged parents were never married.

If we are so concerned about the children of divorced parents, why are children of cohabiting families thus condemned as second class citizens?

I have been involved with the proposed changes to the law, in my capacity as a member of the Advisory Group to the Law Commission. I know that radical legislation which equates cohabitation with marriage, is not proposed. Instead, the Law Commission recommended very moderate, limited legislation. It would obtain some form of justice for the tens of thousands of cohabiting couples, from all strata of society, who encounter problems on the breakdown of their relationships. It wouldn’t be a charter for ‘loadsamoney’, but would recognise economic loss caused by the relationship and would make awards accordingly. It happens in every other area of civil law.

People caught up in the mess of a breakdown are crying out for help. As they attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives, can it be right that our answer is, “Told you so- you should have got married?” Why force people to do something they don’t want?

Some of those who live together do know that there will be few – if any – comebacks if the relationship ends. However, many couples are not bothered about the consequences, irrespective of whether a child is born, because of the popular misconception that “common law marriage” exists.  Then they find out that the law can help married couples and same sex couples – but not them.

I would bet that the majority of Middle England has cohabited at one time or another – including my husband and me, before we did decide to marry!

Why is there no-one in Parliament with the stomach to push this change through?

Author: Marilyn Stowe

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.


  1. Jon Page says:

    It is all very well to say that the rights of people in cohabiting relationships should be protected.

    But given the abysmal state of divorce law in this country, as repeatedly detailed in this blog and the press, is it any wonder that many people resist the introduction of law into their lives? One of the reasons given for cohabiting is precisely to avoid divorce law.

    If the same or remotely similar laws as for divorce are to be brought in for cohabiting, the law will effectively be forcing us to avoid any involvement with other human beings at all!

  2. Samkin says:

    Spot on. I do not want the State as the third party in a relationship of mine. Fairness ia social construct. Why should someone who has paid 10% get 50%. Business partnerships don’t operate like that. Why should I be forced to subsidise someone who chose a lower paid profession. The law reduces domestic partnerships to economics yet does not apply a business model – it applies the current hubris re valuing of ‘love and support’ to justify the unjustifiable, usually to the benefit of women. There is already a marriage strike, 40% of Londoers live alone many burned by the horrendous emotional and financial cost of the legal process involved in divorce.

  3. Dawn Kelly says:

    I lived with a man for 11 months, I put down £40,000 deposit from sale of my house and spent £8,000 on improvements. He gave no deposit but paid half of our interest only mortgage till he left e to pursue other women. He did not sell his mortgage free property as promised and has left me paying the complete mortgage on my limited salary. I am £30,000 in debt as a direct consequence to paying it alone, he is now taking me for 50% of the profits on the sale of my home which will leave me homeless. Is there anyone out there who can offer any words of advice or will such conmen always win?

  4. Lukey says:

    you say marriage is going out of fashion but don’t wonder why it is going out of fashion – one of the main reasons is people don’t want a judge deciding for them what their financiqal position is going to be if the relationship breaks up – and now because they are avoiding that interference by cohabiting you are trying to screw up cohabitation as well !

    By all means educate people that common law marriage doesn’t exist, but otherwise please stop trying to use the law to tell people how to live their lives.

  5. JamesB says:

    I agree with Lukey (not Nick). Also, if you do this, then even fewer couples would live together and the cost of housing would get even higher and society would be even more unhappy. Is that what you want? – Coz that’s what’ll happen!

  6. JamesB says:

    The answer is to abolish the csa and put that (cm) matter back to the courts, thus nudging (encouraging) marriage and pre nups.

    You tell people how to live their lives in this country and they will tell you to p*&s off! and or riot. We have a good tradition of it in this country.

  7. JamesB says:

    The government seem to be on the way to that anyway, so they have it right on a subject (this one, family law) for a change.

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