Family lawyers have welcomed the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on the division of assets between former cohabiting couples - but say the case highlights the need for law reform.
The long-awaited judgment in Jones v Kernott concerns beneficial interest in property where the legal title is held in joint names by an unmarried couple with no express statement of how it is to be shared.
Led by Lord Walker and Lady Hale, the court unanimously ruled that appellant Patricia Jones (pictured, right) was entitled to retain 90% of the equity in a property jointly owned with her former partner Leonard Kernott (pictured, left), rather than the 50% prescribed by strict property law.
The couple bought a house in 1985 in joint names using money from the sale of Jones’ previous home as a deposit. They shared the mortgage and upkeep, but Jones continued to live in the property and had been solely responsible for its mortgage and upkeep for over 12 years following their separation.
Law Society president John Wotton said the judgment ‘moves the law forward because it allows courts to reach a view about what the parties intended, and what a fair outcome should look like’. However, he said the decision did not go far enough to provide all cohabiting couples with clarity about what happens to shared property on a relationship breakdown.
Successive governments have failed to legislate on the rights of unmarried couples, despite the Law Commission’s proposals for reform. Wotton said: ‘The confused state of the law continues to cause stress, litigation and costs - and hence ultimately is damaging for families and children.’
David Allison, chair of family lawyers group Resolution, said: ‘The fact that it has taken four different hearings in four different places to determine the outcome highlights that the law for cohabitants is a mess and is in urgent need of reform.’ Current law ‘fails to reflect the way people are choosing to live their lives’, he said.
Joanna Grandfield, family barrister at national law firm Mills & Reeve, agreed that the Supreme Court decision does not remove the ‘underlying’ need for reform.
She said legislation is needed to reflect the society it is supposed to serve, and to fill the ‘yawning gap’ in the protection of and provision for cohibitants.
Philippa Cunniff, family law partner at Turcan Connell, which has offices in Scotland and London, contrasted the legal position with that in Scotland, where legislation clearly defines the rights of former cohabitants.