Call for unmarried couples to get marriage rights

England and Wales’ most senior family judge admits that marriage is the most stable relationship for raising kids, but wants to give cohabitees more rights.

He wants the law to change so that unmarried couples who split up get the same legal rights as married couples who divorce.

The controversial comments come from Sir Nicholas Wall, the President of the Family Division of the High Court.

Unmarried

His call has concerned family campaigners, who argue that giving legal recognition to ambiguous cohabiting relationships will discourage people from marrying.

The proposal from Sir Nicholas, who is married with four children, would mean unmarried couples’ assets would be shared in the event of a break-up.

Sir Nicholas claimed that giving rights to unmarried couples would not undermine marriage.

He conceded that: “Marriage undoubtedly remains the most stable relationship for bringing up children and for support.”

Cohabitees

Sir Nicholas’ comments came in an interview with The Times newspaper, where he said the law needed to change because of the current “injustice of the present situation”.

In response to the proposal by Sir Nicholas, the Ministry of Justice said it would make an announcement on cohabitees’ rights “in due course”.

Norman Wells, the Director of the Family Education Trust, said: “To give cohabitees the same legal protection as married couples would lead to the public perception that it is does not matter whether you marry or cohabit, but all the evidence shows that there are substantial differences in terms of family stability and outcomes for children”.

Commitment

Mr Wells also said: “By its very nature cohabitation is a more fragile relationship, involving no pledge of commitment, and should not be given the same legal status as marriage.

“While we are sensitive to the hardship that is sometimes experienced when a cohabiting relationship breaks down, the solution is not to treat cohabiting couples as if they had been married.”

In 2007 the Law Commission called for a change in the law for cohabitees. Under its rules partners who had lived together for five years would have had the same legal rights as a husband or wife.

But the previous Labour Government did not act on the proposal.

‘Incentivised’

Last year a report by Christian group the Jubilee Centre hit out at the Law Commission’s plans.

It said that by “incentivising cohabitation” the rules would “disadvantage a much larger number of people, resulting in increased cost to the taxpayer”.

The Jubilee Centre’s report also showed that married parents are four and a half times more likely to stay together than cohabitees.

Stability

And in a separate study, released in January 2010, it was shown that only three per cent of couples who stay together until their child is 15 are unmarried and most cohabiting couples either get married or split up.

The study came from Harry Benson of Bristol Community Family Trust. It dispelled the myth of stable long-term cohabitation.

Labour’s Ed Balls, now the Shadow Chancellor, had claimed that it was the “strength and stability of the relationship” that was the “most important thing”, rather than “the legal form”.

But Mr Benson said that new parents’ marital status is the number one predictor of whether or not they will stay together.

Census

Mr Benson said: “It doesn’t matter how rich or well educated you are, cohabiting parents are at least twice as likely to split up as married parents of similar income or education”.

He told the press: “Based on data of 15,000 new mothers, marriage is the single biggest predictor, above and beyond the effects of income, education, age, ethnic group, benefit receipt and birth order”.

Mr Benson added: “In a new analysis using census data, I found that 60 per cent of families remain intact until their children are 15. Of these, 97 per cent are married.”

Related Resources