70% of family lawyers believe law badly fails cohabiting couples

31 Jul 2007

Findings from a survey of family lawyers in England and Wales has backed the case for urgent reform of the law affecting couples who live together. More than 70% of family lawyers surveyed stated that, in their experience, the law badly fails to protect the interests of cohabiting couples when they separate. The lack of any legal remedy, as well as costs and uncertainty of outcome were cited as the main reasons for this failure.

“These survey results clearly show the need for reform of the law. We fully support the Law Commission’s proposals for reform of cohabitation law published today, and will be pressing the government to move forward and introduce new legislation without delay,” said David Allison, Chair of Resolution’s cohabitation law reform task committee.

The present law provides no protection for couples who live together. Most cohabiting couples assume they have rights as “common law” spouses – but no such rights exist. The uncertainty and lack of clarity cohabiting couples face means increased insecurity and distress at the time of break up, as well as injustice and high legal costs if couples go to court to resolve their differences. The costs involved in sorting out property rights of cohabiting couples can often exceed those of a fully contested divorce - precisely because there is so little clarity.

“Lack of legal protection might be all well and good if couples had taken the decision to live together fully aware of the lack of rights they would have on separation – but six out of ten cohabiting couples mistakenly believe they have the same or similar rights as married couples. In reality they have few rights at all. Many people only find out that the law is much more complicated after they have split up, or their partner has died,” said David Allison.

With the number of cohabiting households predicted to grow from one in six to one in four by 2031, Resolution believes that the need for reform is urgent and that the law must catch up with the way people live their lives today.

Notes to editors

1. Of 498 respondents to Resolution’s Cohabitation Survey 349 (70%) stated that they believed that the law dealt badly with the interests of cohabitants in respect of disputes over property/capital assets. 64 (13%) stated that it dealt well with such issues.

2. Respondents indicated that the reasons for this failure were:
Lack of any legal remedy 258 (52%)
Uncertainty of law 277 (56%)
Uncertainty of outcome as dependent on evidence of intention 326 (65%)
Costs of litigation 266 (53%)
(Respondents were able to choose multiple causes.)

3. 324 (65%)respondents stated that the law dealt badly in respect of financial provision for separating partners. 76 (15%) stated that it dealt well with such issues.

4. Respondents indicated that the reasons for this failure were:
Lack of any legal remedy 291 (58%)
Uncertainty of law 239 (48%)
Uncertainty of outcome as dependent on evidence of intention 262 (53%)
Costs of litigation 205 (41%)
(Respondents were able to choose multiple causes.)

5. The number of respondents who reported issues around cohabitation as a factor in their caseload rose from 49% in 2004 to 59% in 2006/7.

6. Resolution has been campaigning for the introduction of new laws which would apply to couples who have been living together for two years or more, unless there are children, where there should be no minimum period. The law would act as a safety net and prevent injustice by allowing the courts to recognise a cohabiting relationship and decide on an outcome which is fair and reasonable, taking into account individual contributions to the relationship.

For further information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Teresa Richardson
Head of Communications
Direct line: 020 7357 9215
Mobile: 07894 981 020

David Allison
Chair, Cohabitation Committee
0207 420 5000
Mobile: 07956 970 598