Leading peer seeks to tackle outdated and unjust laws affecting modern families

13 Mar 2009

Outdated laws on couples are creating a growing social problem, said Anthony Lester QC (Lord Lester of Herne Hill) the Lib Dem Life peer today. Speaking as his Cohabitation Bill is debated in the House of Lords, Lord Lester said that legal reform was urgently required to protect rapidly growing numbers of cohabitants, and their children, from falling into poverty.

“The face of family life has changed dramatically over the past three decades. Marriage rates are at their lowest since records began, one in four couples will be cohabiting in the near future, and cohabitation is increasingly seen as an alternative to marriage. Yet despite the widespread myth of ‘common law marriage’, couples who live together have virtually no legal protection,” said Lord Lester.

“This means that millions of people and their children are faced with poverty and hardship if relationships end. Our laws are completely out of step with modern family life. Reform is essential, as recommended two years ago by the Law Commission.”

Although cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in the UK, the lack of sufficient legal protection leaves many cohabitants reliant on government handouts and the support of family or friends when relationships break down.

“By the time I realised I had no rights, I was in too deep” said Lucy* who had two children with her ex partner. “I had sold my house and given up my job to support my ex by taking care of our children and helping out with his business. When I found out we were not common law husband and wife as I had assumed, I pressed for us to marry - to no avail. Since our split I have had to rely on government handouts and support from family whilst I try and rebuild my career and my new life as a single parent. I suppose the error I made was in trusting someone I loved”.

The reforms proposed in the Bill would have been a lifeline to Anna* whose partner left her in 2007

“My partner and I were engaged to be married”, said Anna, who was in a ten year relationship with her partner.

“We had been together a few years when he persuaded me to stop working so that I could look after him – he had a hugely successful career and I was earning much less than him, so it made sense to both of us. But after five years of not earning and looking after him and his house I was out in the cold when I discovered he was engaged to someone else. As soon as I eventually got work, my ex evicted me. The worst thing was, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.”

The Cohabitation Bill is supported by Resolution, an association of over 5500 family solicitors.

Resolution’s David Allison said: “We know from experience that the most vulnerable cohabitants are those that have made career and financial sacrifices for the sake of their relationship. In a society concerned over the breakdown of the family and its potential to throw children into poverty, we should be supporting, not penalizing those who live in mutually supporting relationships and who make sacrifices for the future of their families”.

Lord Lester said that reform would be likely to save in court costs, state benefits and public housing, whereas the current situation means that the burden of providing for cohabitants on relationship breakdown is falling on the State.

“The Bill represents a new opportunity to deal effectively with this issue. I hope that the government and Parliament will give it their support so that it may become law before the General Election”.

Notes to Editors

*names have been changed

Lord Lester’s Cohabitation Bill aims to ensure that both cohabitants are treated fairly when they split up and to provide a safety net for vulnerable people. It gives legal rights to cohabitants who have shown commitment to each other without undermining marriage or civil partnership or freedom of choice. A couple will be able to opt out if they wish to do so.

The Cohabitation Bill represents the third time in a decade that Lord Lester has stepped in to modernise family law. His Civil Partnership Bill 2002 was the predecessor to the government’s Civil Partnership Act 2004, and his Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill was passed into law with the support of the Government in 2007.
A press pack including case histories, further statistics, and background information on Lord Lester QC as well as information on Private Members Bills is available at www.resolution.org.uk/livingtogether

Resolution is a 5,500-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.