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Family Matters campaign: We add our voice to the call for legal rights for unmarried couples

Tonight, Sir James Munby (who recently stepped down as the most senior family judge in England and Wales) is chairing a debate hosted by The Times and organised with the Marriage Foundation to look at divorce reform. Obviously, no-fault divorce will be on the table however as Sir James Mundy states:

“While divorce law reform is the most pressing immediate need, there are other parts of family law where there is a need for reform.”

One of these being the

“long-recognised need to safeguard the interests of long-term unmarried couples.”

In light of this, we asked Graham Coy, a Partner from our London Chancery Lane office to join us on the blog to add the Stowe voice to the need to create some legal rights for long-term unmarried couples: one of the five reforms being called for by the Family Matters campaign.

“The Times and the Marriage Foundation in their “Family Matters” campaign have both highlighted the need for family law reform to recognise the growing numbers of people who live together but never marry and what rights they should have, if any, when their relationship breaks down.

The number of people who live together is growing significantly.  Some will go on to marry, some will not.

Research undertaken by the Marriage Foundation shows that the likelihood of relationship breakdown amongst those who live together but do not marry is significantly greater than amongst those who do marry. At the same time, the number of children born to parents who are not married is also growing significantly and is approaching 50%.

Worryingly, the law, as it stands, has fallen behind this significant social change.

Many who do live together but do not marry believe that they have the same rights as if they were married.  Unfortunately, this is completely wrong.  There is no such thing as a common law marriage. The truth is that when a relationship between a couple who are not married or not in a civil partnership breaks down, they have few if any rights.

  • In relation to a property, unless they are a legal owner or can be treated as a legal owner, the property will not be shared between them.
  • The weaker financial party has no right to claim maintenance from the other who may well be in a much stronger financial position; for example, if one has sacrificed a career to bring up a family.
  • There can be no sharing of pension rights.

Successive governments have ignored the advice of the Law Commission that something needs to be done.

There are strongly held views of both sides of the argument. One point of view is that if couples decide not to marry, they impliedly accept that they will not have the protection and they will not have the rights of those who chose to marry. The opposite view is that the law needs to protect those who are left vulnerable when a relationship between a non-married couple breaks down, and especially protect the children.

The majority of specialist family lawyers, Judges, Barristers and Solicitors have long held the view that politicians and Parliament, in particular, need to act.

Recognising that there is another view, there needs to be a public debate, but having said that, legislation cannot wait much longer.”

Graham Coy

24 September 2018

Graham was based at the firm's London family law office. His career as a family law specialist has spanned three decades. He is an experienced advocate, mediator and arbitrator who has worked in all areas of family law.

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  1. spinner says:

    Without a fair legal system you are making relationships in the UK so toxic that I’m not sure what the outcome will be given British people are now not having enough children to even replace themselves.

    Predominantly Men but it applies increasingly to Women who are more worldly already know that one potential outcome of getting married is that they will be in effect an indentured servant for life so are choosing not to marry as that is not a reasonable outcome for any individual.

    With forced marriage what is the exact definition of a relationship that would be considered to be marriage? Would it be if there were children even after a one night stand drunken accident, if they were living together over a certain period of time, what exactly would define if they were in a relationship as it’s all very arbitrary without both parties actively consenting by signing a “contract”.

    The reason our oh so noble lawyers are falling over themselves to “protect” the rights of these people who didn’t ask for their protection in the first place is because there would be an unbelievable amount of work for them as people would need to prove that they didn’t meet the arbitrary criteria laid out in order to protect themselves from people who were using the legal system to financially abuse them.

    Anyone with any assets would need to be incredibly careful about getting into any kind of relationship of any sort as retrospectively potentially decades later you could find a claim being made against you for a relationship long since over.

    If the main concern is that people think there is common law marriage but there isn’t, to resolve that we need education not more government interference in how supposedly free individuals choose to manage their personal relations.

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