A cross-party group of MPs has warned that cohabiting couples may have to wait for several years before legal reforms are implemented to better protect their rights.
The MPs have urged the government to reconsider its timetable and speed things up.
Unlike married couples, cohabitants have very few legal protections if their relationship breaks down. This can cause great hardship and there have even been cases of people having to leave the home they helped to pay for and lived in for several years.
Cohabitants have no automatic right to financial support from their partner and some can be left facing severe hardship.
Lawyers have been demanding change for several years, but the government has been reluctant to act. Recently, during a session with the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee, the government said that it must conclude its work on the law of marriage and divorce before considering any changes to the legal rights of cohabitants.
It said its focus was on reviewing the law of financial provision in divorce cases.
In a letter to Justice Minister Lord Bellamy, committee chair Caroline Nokes highlighted that the Law Commission intends to publish a scoping paper in September 2024, which will precede a comprehensive review.
She said: “Clearly, any agreed changes could take many years to come into effect. If the government was to then conduct further consultation on reforming cohabitation law, as suggested in its response, cohabitants would have to wait even longer before seeing any meaningful change.
“On changes to weddings law, the Law Commission itself – in its recommendations to the government – observed that cohabitation law reform is still necessary even if there are changes to the legal formalities of getting married.”
Nokes added that the committee saw no valid reason why the government couldn’t pursue a “separate, bespoke regime for cohabitants now” while reviewing divorce and weddings law.
She called on the government to reconsider its response and provide basic legal protections for the millions of people who face potential financial hardship in the event of relationship breakdown or the death of their partner.
The number of cohabiting couples has risen from approximately 1.5 million in 1996 to over 3.6 million today.
A government spokesperson said: “Marriage holds an important place in our society, and we are currently examining the associated laws before considering any changes to the rights of cohabiting partners. In the meantime, there are other legal options available to cohabiting couples.”
Those “other legal options” include living together agreements. These set down in advance what should happen to a couple’s assets if the relationship breaks down. They can cover a wide range of issues from finance to childcare arrangements.
Thousands of cohabiting couples have drawn up such agreements and say they feel more secure knowing that their relationship is on a firm legal footing.
If you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of family law please contact Joanne on 01434 320362 or click here to send her an email.