The lack of financial protection afforded to cohabiting couples has been a much debated issue in recent months. In particular, it has been a key issue for the family solicitors' organisation, Resolution, which has done a considerable amount of work to promote its ‘Living Together' campaign, seeking improved financial rights for cohabiting individuals and carers.
This comes as a direct response to the significant increase in the number of cohabiting couples in the UK, which is expected to rise from 2 million to 3.8 million by 2031. As a consequence of this rise, the demand for the provision of a package of rights protecting cohabiting individuals has seen an increasing amount of support.
So where does this leave the institute of marriage? ‘Neglected' and ‘devalued' according to a new report published by the Centre for Social Justice earlier this month. The report, ‘Every Family Matters,' provides a set of recommendations aimed at putting marriage at the heart of family life. In doing so, the Report rejects the move to give couples living together the same legal rights as those who are married.
The Report recommends education over reform, suggesting that if individuals are aware of the protection that marriage can offer, they can choose to seek that protection. A greater public education is sought to dispel the mistaken belief that the law recognises cohabitants as ‘common law spouses'. The Report goes on to consider the social, rather than financial, benefits that marriage can bring to a couple making a public commitment to one another by entering into a socially defined relationship.
The authors of the Report call on the Government to do more to promote marriage and help couples in difficulty. The Report recommends that there be a compulsory three month ‘cooling off' period in which estranged couples must find out about the implications of a divorce. They must have obtained, received, attended or in other ways have had the opportunity to consider information on reconciliation, alternative dispute resolution, the impact on children and the costs of court procedures before proceedings could be issued. The purpose of this approach is to provide an opportunity for reflection before the couple head for the divorce courts.
In summary, although the Report acknowledges that married couples are afforded a significantly greater level of financial protection than their cohabiting counterparts, it does not seek to redress the imbalance by the provision of additional rights to the cohabitants. Instead, it proposes that this issue is tackled by education, providing sufficient information to enable individuals to make an informed choice as to whether they wish to marry in the first place and how, if possible, to avoid the relationship coming to an end.
No doubt many will support the recognition of the institute of marriage that this latest report brings. However, it is unrealistic to believe that its recommendations will resolve the debate regarding the rights of unmarried couples. This issue arises from the recognition that society has changed and that the law ought to reflect the way we live today. No amount of education will change this principle. The drive for reform will therefore continue.
If you would like further information about the divorce process, the alternatives to a divorce or information about reconciliation and counselling then please contact any of our solicitors in the family team on 0113 2223210. We are happy to provide further advice on these areas, and all aspects of family law, in a free initial interview.
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