Meeting with Sarah Green MP about the Protection of Cohabiting Couples
Meeting with Sarah Green MP about the Protection of Cohabiting Couples
Each year, Resolution, the family justice body, run a national campaign to raise awareness about a particular area of law. This year, to celebrate their 40th Anniversary, Resolution are using their Awareness Week (previously called ‘Good Divorce Week’) to launch their Vision for Family Justice, focusing on the need for cohabitation reform over the course of the week.
Resolution is a community of family professionals who commit to a Code of Practice that promotes a constructive approach to family separation that benefits the whole family. IBB Law’s family team are all committed Resolution members.
On Thursday 14 September 2023, Catherine O’Reilly, Senior Associate in IBB Law’s Family team met with Sarah Green, MP for Chesham and Amersham. Catherine initially reached out to Sarah as part of Resolution’s 2022 Good Divorce Week to discuss the fact that overstretched family courts are facing unprecedented backlogs and families are frequently left waiting long periods to resolve financial and children arrangements after divorce.
During their meeting, Catherine and Sarah discussed the crisis in the family courts and the options open to families to resolve their disputes away from court. Sarah has already had cause to write to the Ministry of Justice and raise questions in Parliament in relation to a number of her constituents who are struggling unnecessarily when going through divorce as they try to navigate a family court system and Child Maintenance Service which do not effectively support them at this vulnerable time.
Catherine explained that a great deal of work has been done to make divorce easier, with the still relatively recent No Fault divorce system resulting in a more straightforward process for a number of people and ultimately, a reduction in legal fees given the accessibility of the system enables many clients to deal with this element themselves and thereby mitigate some level of cost. She did stress, however, that there needs to be greater awareness of the fact that the online divorce is not the end of the matter. It is important to deal with financial matters following the breakdown of a relationship and legal assistance may also be required in respect of matters relating to the children of the family. Whilst we at IBB will always do what we can to circumvent delays in the court process (with court proceedings always being the last resort) for example through the process of mediation, round table meetings or private hearings such as a private Financial Dispute Resolution hearing or arbitration in the appropriate cases, we recognise that these carry an additional cost. Catherine raised the point that sadly there seems to be a two-tier system in family matters, with the routes to work around delays often being open only to those with available funds. Money spent early in the separation process avoids further expenditure further down the track for individuals and the state. Obtaining legal advice at an early stage can lead to a swifter resolution.
Sarah also raised concerns about a prevailing lack of awareness in respect of cohabiting couples who have not married and their rights following the breakdown of a relationship. This is the issue that Resolution are focusing on in their 2023 Awareness Week.
Currently, cohabiting couples have few or no rights in the event of a relationship breakdown meaning that unlike married couples there is no mechanism for splitting assets. This is despite a huge growth in the number of couples and families that cohabit rather than marry.
A nationwide poll carried out by Whitestone Insight on behalf of Resolution found around half of cohabitees are unaware that they lack rights should they split up.
- 59% of people polled back better legal protections for cohabiting people.
- 74% of cohabitees agree that ‘the current laws surrounding cohabitation are unfit for today’s modern society’
- 75% of Resolution members surveyed said they support a change in the law to provide basic rights to cohabiting couples
Asked about their concerns in the event of a relationship ending, 35% said they feared having nowhere to live – if a property is in one partner’s name the other partner has no automatic claim on it in the event of a break up. One in three said they feared significant financial hardship.
According to House of Commons Library research 1.5 million couples cohabited in 1996 but that figure increased by 144% over the following 25 years to 3.6 million in 2021. According to the recent Resolution polling 83% of respondents believe that cohabiting will become even more popular in future.
During the meeting, Sarah agreed that these issues require greater public awareness and the crisis in the family courts needs a higher level of parliamentary scrutiny. She is keen to promote this as a cross-party issue, recognising that the impact it is having on people around the country has to be of concern to every political party.
Catherine O’Reilly, IBB Law, comments:
I was very grateful that Sarah Green took the time to meet with me and that she is so keen to champion the cause of divorcing parents and their children, as well as separating unmarried couples, to the Government.
Today’s research demonstrates the urgent need for greater legal protection. Many cohabitees believe they are protected by ‘common-law marriage’ – but this is a myth and, sadly, they only discover this once it is too late.
That’s why I’m joining Resolution’s call for a change in the law to ensure cohabiting couples in Buckinghamshire and elsewhere are not left in dire financial straits should their relationship come to an end.
This call comes as Resolution launches its Vision for Family Justice in Parliament this week, highlighting a number of areas where reform is needed in order to better help families who are facing separation or divorce.
Grant Cameron, National Chair of Resolution, said, “It’s great to have so much support across the country for our call for change from people like Catherine. For 40 years, Resolution has been campaigning for reforms which help couples who separate to do so more amicably and constructively – which is why cohabitation reform is front and centre of our Vision for Family Justice.
The shape of families across England and Wales is changing – and our laws need to keep up.”
The Vision for Family Justice can be found here.
I would urge all couples who are separating to investigate all options in relation to their legal rights at an early stage. This can often save you money in the long run. Please do not hesitate to contact the family team at IBB should you require assistance in relation to any aspect of the breakdown of a relationship.
Speak to our Family Law experts
IBB Law are on top of all changes to the law affecting unmarried couples and are able to advise on your rights upon a breakdown of the relationship or the benefits of entering into a cohabitation agreement at the commencement of a relationship.