Earlier today I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, alongside Harry Benson of the Bristol Community Family Trust, to discuss cohabitation and the Government’s abandonment of plans to give cohabiting couples greater legal protection.
If you are a first-time visitor to this blog after listening to the programme: welcome!
As you will know already, this latest development is a controversial one, and I am less than impressed by the Government’s refusal to take the proposals for law reform any further. The injustices we see almost daily done to cohabitants are growing and are appalling. More than two million couples are in cohabitant relationships, many with children, yet there is no adequate legal remedy if those relationships break down.
That is not to say that cohabiting couples should be treated in the same way as married couples. That is a step too far. But a failsafe, a safety net should be in place so that the weaker party is not left homeless and penniless. It was very kind of Harry Benson to refer to me as a “great champion of injustice” Law, however, is a vocation. Pointing out injustice, and seeking to remedy that injustice must surely be incumbent on us all if it will somehow achieve a fairer outcome.
Here are some of my previous posts about cohabitation, which may be of interest:
The Experts: Government wrecks cohabitation reform in just 150 words – An expanded version of the post I wrote for The Times, dissecting the Government’s brief statement and looking at the implications for couples up and down the country.
Kernott v Jones: a case of square pegs and round holes – Kernott v Jones is a case heard by the Supreme Court earlier this year. It is a property dispute between former cohabitees. The couple purchased a property in joint names in 1985 and spit in 1993, with Ms Jones assuming sole responsibility for the mortgage and household expenses. Now, however, Mr Kernott is seeking his 50 per cent share in the property. It is a case that highlights the inadequacies of current legal remedies for cohabiting couples. The judges’ decision is expected soon.
Cohabitation rights: three cheers for Lord Justice Wall! – In an interview with The Times in February 2011, the President of the Family Division confirmed that cohabitees, women in particular, are “severely disadvantaged” by current law. He argued that cohabiting couples who split up should have legal rights to a possible share of property and money.
Cohabitation: what has Australia got that England hasn’t? – A guest post from a Stowe Family Law trainee and a senior family lawyer in Australia, looking at how improved legal rights for cohabiting couples can work in practice.
Incidentally, during the discussion on Woman’s Hour I referred to a paper about population trends, released yesterday by the Office of National Statistics. It includes a piece about cohabitation and marriage in Britain since the 1970s. This crunches the numbers and confirms a significant rise in cohabitation, the increasing tendency to have a child at least a year before marrying, the rising numbers of failed cohabitations and the decline in marriage as compared to cohabitation.
Most interesting, however, is the conclusion:
We note, however, that the growth of cohabiting unions could be seen, perhaps paradoxically, as promoting rather than competing with marriage. A first reason is that marriage rates are higher among cohabiters than among the unpartnered. A second point, alluded to earlier, is that the growth in cohabitation together with the rise in the proportion of cohabiters who do not marry could be linked with the stabilisation and emerging decline in marital breakdown at short durations.This could be so if cohabitation acted as a kind of marital firewall, keeping out of the married population couples whose relationship is more fragile. The hypothesis needs further investigation in a British context.
It is a lengthy but fascinating article, and if you would like to read it you can find it here.
Could all those who argue against legislative reform, because they argue that cohabitation detracts from marriage, be wrong on this fundamental point? And if they are, then what convincing argument is there against legislation for cohabiting couples? (Particularly since it is, of course, available to cohabitees on the death of the other under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975…)