A family law group that successfully campaigned for no-fault divorce has criticised the government for refusing to reform family law to better protect unmarried couples.
In a report published over the summer, the House of Commons women and equalities committee urged the government to improve legal protections for cohabiting couples by introducing an opt-out cohabitation scheme proposed by the Law Commission in its 2007 report on the financial consequences of relationship breakdown.
The committee said the scheme offered a ‘pragmatic approach’ for reforming cohabitation law that would protect eligible cohabitants who are economically vulnerable and recommended the government commit to publishing draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny in the 2023-24 session of parliament.
However, the government rejected the recommendation.
Responding to the report, the government said existing work on the law of marriage and divorce must conclude before any changes to the law regarding the rights of cohabitants on relationship breakdown are considered.
The government said it must focus on its commitment to review the law of financial provision on divorce and is currently working out how the review should be conducted. The Law Commission’s 2007 report could be fully reconsidered until the review on financial provision is finished ‘because any new legal rights and obligations afforded to cohabitants would necessarily need to be considered against a baseline of rights afforded to married parties or civil partners on divorce and dissolution’.
Committee chair Caroline Nokes MP said the government relied on flawed logic. ‘Weddings law and financial provision on divorce are wholly separate areas of family law. There is no reason the government should not prioritise law reform for cohabiting partners alongside this. Moreover, changes to weddings and divorce law could take many years. This response effectively kicks the issue into the long grass and risks leaving a growing number of cohabitants financially vulnerable,’ she added.
Family law group Resolution, which gave evidence to the women and equalities committee, was ‘bitterly disappointed’ with the government’s decision.
Graeme Fraser, chair of Resolution’s cohabitation committee, said: ‘The lack of rights for cohabiting couples means millions of people – often women and others in society who are vulnerable – are at significant financial risk if their relationship ends or their partner passes away.
‘Having bad laws is generally a bad thing for families. Current cohabitation laws are unfair, not fit for purpose and consign too many families to misery and dire financial hardship. It will continue to do so until it has been reformed, exacerbated by the significant numbers who continue to cohabit.’
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