The call from Lady Hale is important because thousands of cohabiting couples are under the illusion that they have the same legal rights as people who are married.
It’s a misconception that all too often leads to heartache.
It could be that someone lives with their partner for 20 years yet ends up homeless and penniless when the relationship breaks up. Or they may find they lose out because their partner dies without making a will and the estate they helped to pay for and expected to inherit is instead divided up between family members they hardly know.
Women have no automatic right to maintenance from their partner, even if they stayed at home for years to look after their children. Men may find it difficult to recover money they spent on a home in their partner’s name.
With marriage there is an automatic presumption that both partners are equal irrespective of their differing contributions. Unless there are special circumstances, assets and wealth are divided equally when a couple divorce. With co-habiting couples there is no such presumption no matter how long they live together.
Many people think the law is out of touch with the way people live today. There are currently more than two million cohabiting couples in the UK. In 2006, the Scottish Parliament recognised this and introduced legislation giving cohabiting couples more legal rights, though stopping short of the full protection provided by marriage.
The new rights were put into action recently when the Supreme Court ordered that Angus Grant should pay his former partner, Jessamine Gow, £39,500 after their relationship ended. It’s unlikely that she would have received that if she lived in England or Wales.
Now Lady Hale, a Supreme Court justice, has called for couples here to be given similar rights. She said the changes in the law had achieved a lot for Scottish cohabitants and their children, and unmarried couples in England and Wales deserved no less.
However, the Government has so far been reluctant to make any changes, partly because of fears that it would devalue the status of marriage.
In the absence of any new legislation, many couples protect themselves by drawing up living together agreements which state in advance how their assets should be divided if their relationship fails. A few years ago the government started a campaign urging couples to draw up such agreements to cover things like finances, property and pensions.
The agreements are a little unusual in that they are not legally binding but they will be recognised by the courts and taken into account as long as they produce a fair settlement for both sides.
Please contact Charles Goodbody our Family Law Expert in our Warminster or Westbury office on 01985 214444 or 01373 865577 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of family law.