‘Disappointment’ as Labour manifesto omits solid plan for cohabitation reform despite Thornberry pledge

A London law firm has expressed their ‘disappointment’ after the Labour manifesto was announced yesterday, with an apparent U-turn on Emily Thornberry’s commitment to cohabitation reform.

Industry professionals have noted that the manifesto contained no solid mention of the rights of cohabiting couples, despite Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry announcing her enthusiasm for reform at the Labour Party conference last October, saying: ‘For too long, women in cohabiting couples have been left with no rights when those relationships come to an end. If there is no joint property or shared parental dues, a man can leave his partner with nothing, especially if he has the means to take it to court’.

Among those who have been ruffled by the redaction, a senior associate from Stowe Family Law said that matters were in ‘desperate need of change’. A total of 92 per cent of respondents to a survey conducted by Stowe said they believed cohabitees should be afforded legal protections. Gabrielle Read-Thomas, Senior Associate at Stowe Family Law, commented:

“I am disappointed that cohabitation reform has been excluded from the Labour Party’s Manifesto after Emily Thornberry’s expression of commitment to reviewing the current (concerning lack of) structure around cohabitation in October 2023.

Family practitioners have been pushing for cohabitation reform for many years , with very little success. Currently, although they are the fastest growing family type in the UK, cohabitees have minimal legal rights.

Despite this, there is still a widespread belief in the mythical common law marriage, with 46% of respondents to a survey we conducted at Stowe Family Law believing that cohabitees have the same rights as married couples.

Matters are in desperate need of change as individuals, particularly women, are being left extremely vulnerable if their relationship breaks down or if their partner passes away without leaving a Will, as there are no protective measures regarding finances in place.

The public is backing calls for reform. 92% of respondents to our survey said that they believed cohabitees should have legal protections. However, any such legal structures should be approached with caution, with robust structures and criteria in place, potentially with an opt-in or opt-out system (86% agreeing with opt-in) to minimise the risk of financial vulnerability.

The next Government needs to carefully consider the impact of not prioritising cohabitation reform, particularly on women who are left with no protections. Unfortunately, change still seems a long way off.”

Kate Daly, who co-founded an online divorce services company has expressed particular concern for the protections of women who are living with partners but not married. She called the rights of married couples in comparison with those living in what is often incorrectly referred to as common law marriage ‘a cruel and damaging imbalance’.

Ms Daly, co-founder of online divorce services company amicable has said:

“It is good to see these reforms, but it is perplexing that Labour’s manifesto only refers to strengthening the rights and protections of women in cohabiting couples. Although it is far more often women who suffer when cohabiting relationships break down, it can also be the male partner.

“For decades, there has been a cruel and damaging imbalance between the rights enjoyed by divorcing spouses and civil partners, and the few and flimsy ones given to separating cohabiting couples.

“It has long been known that women, who may have made invaluable contributions to the home, can be left financially high and dry when the relationship breaks down. But men who play a significant role in childcare and contributing to the home can also suffer the same fate.There are 3.6 million cohabiting couples in the UK. Labour’s reforms should protect families by fixing the longstanding imbalance in rights and protections between couples in different kinds of relationships.”

Despite expressions of disappointment from firms Tony Roe, partner at Dexter Montague has spoken of Labour’s manifesto pledge to protect women in co-habiting couples calling this a positive change and ‘doesn’t mean Labour will ignore pleas of cohabitation reform from the public but rather would focus their efforts on the dangers presented to unmarried women in cohabiting situations. The manifesto states: ‘We will strengthen the rights and protections available to women in co-habiting couples’.

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