Statistics reveal important trends in living arrangements

Family Law|Industry News|August 15th 2019

As I mentioned here last Friday, the Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) has published its latest Families and households statistical bulletin containing figures for trends in living arrangements in the UK, for 2018. They make interesting reading, and are of considerable importance for the future shape of family law, so I thought I would take a closer look.

Just to be clear what the bulletin is about, the ONS explains that it shows: “Trends in living arrangements including families (with and without dependent children), people living alone and people in shared accommodation, broken down by size and type of household.” A ‘family’ is defined as “a married, civil partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children, or a lone parent, with at least one child, who live at the same address. Children may be dependent or non-dependent.” A ‘household’ is defined as “one person living alone, or a group of people (not necessarily related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room, sitting room or dining area. A household can consist of a single family, more than one family, or no families in the case of a group of unrelated people.”

Ok, so what to the figures show (at least that is of relevance to family law)?

The first headline is that the “Number of families continues to grow, with large increases for same-sex couple families”. We are told that: “In 2018, the number of families in the UK continued to rise to 19.1 million. This is a statistically significant increase of 7.6% from 17.7 million in 2008.” However, this is not due to a greater proportion of the population deciding to live in a family group, as the bulletin gores on to tell us that: “The rise over the last 10 years is in line with the growth in the UK population over this period of 7.5%.” Oh. Still, (and trying not to be a doom-monger!) more families inevitably means more family law work for our courts.

Looking deeper, we are told that:

“Married and civil partner couple families were the most common family type in the UK in 2018, representing two-thirds (67.1%) of all families. Cohabiting couple families were the second-largest family type at 3.4 million (17.9%), followed by 2.9 million (15%) lone parent families. Since 2008, the share of married couple families has declined from 69.1% of all families, while the share of cohabiting couple families has increased from 15.3%.”

And that:

“Cohabiting couple families were the fastest-growing family type over the last decade with a statistically significant increase of 25.8% from 2.7 million in 2008. This may be explained by an increasing trend to cohabit instead of marrying, or to cohabit before marriage.”

And then we come to the nub of the matter:

“There is no such thing as a common law marriage in the UK, meaning that cohabiting couples do not have the same legal rights as married couples. The Cohabitation Rights Bill, which addresses the rights of cohabiting couples, is in the early stages of passing through Parliament.”

In fact, the Cohabitation Rights Bill is a Private Members’ Bill and, as such, is highly unlikely to get through Parliament. The simple fact of the matter is that cohabitees do not have any special rights, and nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future. The number of former cohabitees left with little or nothing when their relationship ends, even if they have made a full contribution to the relationship, for example giving up work to look after children, is rising all the time. Surely, these figures demonstrate the urgent need for reform, introducing basic financial protections for cohabitees?

Moving on, we are told that: “The numbers of same-sex couple families have increased substantially in recent years, with an increase of 53.2% from 152,000 in 2015 to 232,000 in 2018.” That is a huge increase. And, unlike the situation with the rest of the population, the proportion of same-sex cohabiting couples has actually decreased, as has the proportion of civil partner couple families. The reason, of course, is the introduction of same-sex marriages in March 2014. Since 2017, the number of same-sex marriage couple families has doubled to 68,000, representing 29.4% of all same-sex couple families in 2018, compared with only 8.9% in 2015. Surely a roaring success for same-sex marriage.

However, all is not rosy when it comes to marriage. The bulletin points out that the increase in same-sex marriages “contrasts to opposite-sex couple families in which 79.4% are married couple families and 20.6% are cohabiting couple families. The trends for opposite-sex and same-sex couple families are going in opposite directions, with the share of opposite-sex married couple families decreasing, while opposite-sex cohabiting couple families are increasing”. Will this eventually even out? We will have to wait and see. For now, however, it seems that marriage is proportionally more attractive to same-sex couples.

The last thing I want to look at is the most important: the children of these families. We are told that:

“Families with dependent children (both couple and lone parent families) have had a statistically significant increase of 5.6% from 7.6 million in 2008 to 8 million in 2018, while families with non-dependent children have also had a statistically significant increase of 16.4% to 2.9 million. The rapid increase in families with non-dependent children is reflected in the numbers of young adults living with their parents.”

The bulletin goes on:

“Married or civil partner couple families remain the most common type of family in which dependent children live (63.5%), followed by 21.1% in lone parent families and 15.3% in cohabiting couple families. Cohabiting couple families have had the largest statistically significant percentage increase of those families with dependent children at 23.9% in the decade 2008 to 2018, rising to 1.3 million in 2018.

“In 2018, of all families with dependent children, lone parent families had fewer children on average than cohabiting or married couple families. Among lone parent families, 54.5% had one child, which was a higher proportion than both other family types, 32.1% of lone parents had two children and 13.3% of lone parents had three or more children.

“Conversely, married couples with dependent children had more children on average than other family types. These patterns could reflect the perceived stability of parental partnerships, as well as that people often marry after having a child and then have further children within marriage”

In summary, more dependent children in cohabiting couple and lone parent families, which some would say was a bad thing, but marriage still being favoured by parents of several dependent children, which no doubt some would say was a good thing. So far as family law is concerned, it seems to me that the increase in the number of lone parent families is the most significant fact here. That will surely mean more disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, and more applications for child support maintenance. Clearly, we will need to have a system that is capable of coping with these things, not just now, but into the future.

You can find the ONS’s statistical bulletin, here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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