“Common Law Marriage” myth needs addressing, say MPs

News Release

16 Sep 2013

A survey of MPs has revealed that 69% of Parliamentarians agree there is a mistaken belief in the existence of “common law marriage” among their constituents, and that 57% believe the law needs to be changed to provide greater protection for unmarried couples upon separation.

UPDATE (11.40am): You can find Lord Marks' speech at Lib Dem Conference in support of the motion here

  • New polling shows 7 in 10 Parliamentarians agree there is a mistaken belief in common law marriage.
  • Three quarters of MPs agree legal rights for unmarried cohabiting couples unclear, with 60% believing there is a need for greater legal protection for unmarried couples upon separation.
  • Results come as Liberal Democrats due to debate issue at Party Conference today.

The results of the survey, commissioned by the family law group Resolution, come as the Liberal Democrats prepare to debate a policy motion on the subject at their annual conference in Glasgow today.

Cohabitation – where people are living with their partner but not married or in a civil partnership – is the fastest growing family type in the UK, yet there is little or no protection for couples should they separate. In 2012, there were 5.9m people cohabiting in the UK, double the 1996 figure.

Resolution, the body representing 6,500 family law professionals in England and Wales, has been campaigning for a change in the law to reflect this increasing demographic group, and today welcomed the recognition from MPs that reform is needed.

Responding to the survey’s findings, Steve Kirwan, who leads Resolution’s work on cohabitation, said:

“This poll of MPs confirms the findings of a public survey in 2008, in which 51% of respondents believed, incorrectly, that cohabitants had the same rights as married couples.

“And yet the current situation for people who live together in England and Wales, more often than not, creates injustice and hardship.

“This isn’t about whether you believe people should be married or not, this is about ensuring that people are aware of their legal rights – and that fact that more than two thirds of MPs identify this as a problem clearly points to the need for reform.

“Despite the myth that there is such a thing as “common law” marriage – which hasn’t existed since 1753 – it is possible to live together with someone for decades and even to have children together, and then simply walk away without taking any responsibility for a former partner’s welfare. That is simply wrong, it needs to change, and it needs to change now.”

Speaking ahead of the debate on the issue at Liberal Democrat Conference, Lord Marks QC, who is moving the motion, said:

“It’s fitting that this issue is being debated in Scotland, where of course unmarried couples who live together already have legal rights upon separation. It’s high time for the rest of the UK to catch up and bring the law in step with how millions of people are choosing to live their lives.”

If agreed by conference, this motion will see cohabitation reform become an official policy of one of the Coalition partners heading into the next election.


Notes to editors

  • 51% of respondents to the 24th report on British Social Attitudes in 2008 believed that ‘common law marriage’ still existed.
  • The motion on “Cohabitation Rights” (F20) is due to be debated at Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference at 11.40am on Monday 16th September.
  • Resolution is a group of over 6,500 family lawyers and professionals in England and Wales. It promotes a non-confrontational, constructive approach to resolving family disputes. To find out more, visit www.resolution.org.uk
  • The survey of MPs was carried out by ComRes , who interviewed 157 MPs between the 26th June and 24th July 2013. Data were weighted by political party and region to reflect the exact composition of the House of Commons. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full data tables are available at www.comres.co.uk.