Labour manifesto must ‘keep promises’ made to 3.6m cohabiting couples

Ahead of the launch of the Labour manifesto, Kate Daly, co-founder of amicable – the online divorce service for couples – has urged the party to keep its promise to give separating cohabiting couples greater rights.

There are 3.6m cohabiting couples in England and Wales, the fastest growing type of family unit. Kate Daly, co-founder of amicable said that 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.  She added:

“I have seen countless cohabitees find that after years of living together, they can be left with no safety net on separation. And it is almost always women who suffer most. After years of making invaluable contributions, if the home is not in joint names, they cannot re-house or face complicated and expensive civil proceedings to keep a roof over their children’s heads. It can be desperately difficult to move on with their lives. Labour must make sure that co-habiting couples, many of whom mistakenly believe in the myth of a ‘common law marriage’, are finally given rights and protections like those of married couples and civil partners.”

At the Labour Party conference last October, the Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, committed to reforming the law on cohabiting couples. In her speech ‘Making the Law work for Women’ she said:

“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 and – thanks to the Tories – she does not. It is time we reviewed this issue in England and Wales, just as it has been in New Zealand, Scotland and Ireland. No woman should be forced to get married or stay in an unhappy relationship, just to avoid ending up on the street.”

Ms. Thornberry joins a long list of advocates for change – across the political divides. Campaigners have consistently called for reform over the years. They have pointed to the financial hardship endured by one or both people in a cohabiting couple who have split due to the current “out of date” law.

The British Social Attitudes Survey – carried out by The National Centre for Social Research – reveals that 46% wrongly believe that cohabiting couples form a common law marriage.

The total number of cohabiting couples has increased from around 1.5 million in 1996 to around 3.6 million in 2021, an increase of 144%. Kate said:

“Such legal protections as are currently available to cohabiting couples are unwieldy and can be difficult to access (such as Schedule 1 of the Children’s Act 1989, or The Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 (TOLATA)) or only apply when one of the cohabiting couple has been the victim of domestic abuse or coercive control (Part IV of the Family Law Act 1996 & Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015).

In 2007 the Law Commission published a report which recommended ‘financial relief on separation’ based on the contribution each partner had made to the relationship – whether it be financial or otherwise (such as childcare). Those recommendations have not been implemented. In 2008 the Labour government fudged reform saying they would wait and see how a scheme to address the anomaly in Scotland was working. In 2018 the Conservative government again parked the issue.

As recently as August 2022, MPs on the Women and Equalities Committee published their proposals to reform the law on the rights for cohabiting partners citing the Law Commission’s report.”

MPs on the committee said:

“The lack of legal protection on family breakdown means that women, including women from an ethnic minority background and those who have had a religious-only wedding, can suffer relationship-generated disadvantage. It is time the law adapted to the social reality of modern relationships while still recognising the social and religious status of marriage.”

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