New bill to tackle living together injustice

10 Jul 2008

One of Britain’s top law makers will introduce a Bill this autumn as part of a new campaign to end the injustice and financial hardship faced by thousands of cohabiting couples, carers and siblings who live together.

The Bill to give rights to couples who live together will be introduced by Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, a veteran human rights lawyer who successfully introduced the Forced Marriages Bill and was instrumental in developing the recent Civil Partnership Act.

“Sensibly drafted legislation is urgently needed to tackle the vulnerability not only of unmarried cohabiting couples and their children but also co-dependent carers and siblings who live together. It is a scandal in modern Britain that existing law does almost nothing to prevent such people from losing their home or sliding into poverty if their relationship breaks down or their partner dies,” said Lord Lester.

The Bill’s introduction is part of a new “Living Together” campaign, launched today by Resolution, an association of 5000 family lawyers, and Lord Lester’s Odysseus Trust.

Joyce and Sybil Burden, the elderly sisters who took their 30-year fight to protect their home from inheritance tax right up to the European Court of Human Rights, have added their support to the campaign:

“We have always tried to secure each other’s future after the death of one, but have found it impossible under this system. It was a bitter disappointment to lose our case at the European Court. We do hope you can help us, as after all these years, we are getting quite past it for ourselves.”

One in six couples in the UK co-habit and do not marry according to the Office of National Statistics and this is predicted to rise to one in four by 2031. More than half of cohabitants (53%) still falsely believe in the existence of Common Law marriage. However, the Government has decided to postpone action on recent Law Commission proposals to reform cohabitation law pending research into the cost and benefits of reforms introduced in Scotland.
David Allison, Chair of Resolution’s cohabitation law reform task force, says that Britain’s more than two million cohabiting couples and co-dependents should not be made to wait any longer for justice:

"The Government's proposed research won’t even begin until 2010 and if cost was the issue, one has to ask why the Government specifically excluded research on cost from the Law Commission’s original brief. Many other countries, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand already have protection for cohabiting couples. It is high time that Britain had a family legal system fit for the 21st century.”

The Government’s timid response also flies in the face of growing popular support for reform.

Findings from the British Social Attitudes Survey, published earlier this year, show that almost nine out of ten people think that a cohabiting partner should have a right to financial provision if their relationship is a long-term one, has involved prioritising one partner’s career or includes children.

The campaign will also look at ways to extend protection to those who cannot marry but nevertheless live together in a co-dependent way. For example, it would cover siblings such as the Burden sisters, elderly parents and children who live with them and care for them.

The Bill would protect the vulnerable without equating living together to marriage or civil partnership in every way. For example, the Bill would apply only to people living in the same household for a minimum period of time in which the parties have provided a financial or other commitment to each other.

To protect freedom of choice, couples who wish to do so could “opt out” of the scheme provided legal advice is sought by both parties to protect the vulnerable.

Notes to editors:
1. A public consultation paper covering all the issues under consideration will be published in early September and will feed in to the draft Bill which will be introduced in the House of Lords towards the end of the year.

2. A press pack including case histories, statistics, background information on Lord Lester QC as well as information on the process in the House of Lords for Bills is available at: Living Together Press Kit

3. The Odysseus Trust is a non-profit company limited by guarantee, which seeks to promote good governance and the effective protection of human rights. The Trust is directed by Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC.

4. Resolution is a 5,000-strong group of family lawyers committed to promoting a non-confrontational atmosphere in which family law matters are dealt with in a sensitive, constructive and cost-effective way. It sets high standards of good practice in family law and runs an accreditation scheme for specialist family lawyers.

5. For further information or to arrange an interview please contact:
Teresa Richardson: 0207 357 9215; 07894 981 020 or
Martha James: 0207 407 0827; 07971 300 024