The Cohabitation Rights Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on 12 December 2014 and has now passed through to the Committee Stage. The news was welcomed by many supporters who have long campaigned for this area of law to be updated in order to reflect the standards of a modern society.
Given that more couples are living together than ever before, the Bill is designed to address the current unfairness in the law in relation to unmarried couples’ rights on separation.
As reported in the case of Collins v Curran, which reached the Court of Appeal in January 2013, L J Toulson explained that the law ought not to be concerned with ‘human sympathies’ despite the possibility that this approach may result in an unfair outcome. This meant that although Miss Curran had cohabited with Mr Collins for 30 years, running a business together from the family home, she was not entitled to the usual rights afforded to a spouse on divorce because the property was only held in the sole name of Mr Collins.
Under the current legislation, couples who cohabit rather than marry face certain difficulties with dividing assets upon separation despite the fact that they may have shared in them equally throughout the duration of their relationship. Rights for cohabitants are limited, no matter the length of the relationship and unlike in divorce there is no automatic right to make a claim against assets held in the sole name of a former partner. Due to this difficult position cohabiting couples are often dependent upon property and trusts law when a relationship breaks down, which is not only a costly and complex pursuit but proceedings can often become lengthy – leading to added stress in an already uncertain and difficult time.
Whilst family law charity Resolution have welcomed the introduction of the Bill, Steve Kirwan who heads the cohabitation rights work at the charity called for greater reform saying the proposed changes do not go far enough. Resolution’s further proposals include eligibility criteria which would give cohabiting couples certain automatic rights upon separation, unless they choose to ‘opt out’.
The Lords involved in the second reading were divided in their opinion as to how far the law should go in terms of legislating a couple’s decision not to marry, but supporters of the Bill are of the view that an update in the law is required in some shape or form.