At Harrogate Family Law, we closely followed the political party conference season for any potential updates regarding family law. We weren’t left disappointed, with cohabitation law reform being the order of the day for the Labour Party. On 10th October, the Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, declared that a Labour government would commit to reforming the law governing cohabiting couples, with the aim of providing better protections for the fastest growing type of family in the UK. 

But what would such reform look like? Why is it needed? And will it succeed in the face of ongoing resistance? Let’s take a look.  

What are Labour proposing?

Ultimately, Labour are proposing to introduce a form of common law marriage. This would see cohabitees being able to seek financial support from their ex-partner, and have more equal rights when it comes to property. 

They didn’t shy away from expressing their concern that women are often particularly vulnerable under the current law, since they’re very often the financially weaker party. Their hope is that reforming cohabitation law will result in less women feeling trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships, as a result of having no other choice financially but to stay. 

Is there a need for change?

For many commentators, the answer is a resounding yes. There are more than 3.6 million cohabitating couples in the UK – that’s 1 in 5 couples. For various reasons (money, rejection of social formalities and expectations to name just a few), many couples are eschewing the traditional path of marriage and opting to simply live together instead. 

As the law currently stands, if unmarried cohabiting couples separate, they won’t be able to make a financial claim for themselves in respect of maintenance, pensions or property. While married couples have the protection of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, cohabiting couples have little to recourse to a legal remedy without turning to complex property and land law. Such proceedings can be lengthy, difficult and expensive. 

Myth vs reality

Whilst the law surrounding cohabitation can be problematic enough in itself, perhaps the bigger cause for concern is that so many people still believe that ‘common law marriage’ exists

Research has shown that around 46% of cohabiting couples surveyed believed that they would have the same rights of married couples if they were to separate. All too often, this myth leaves cohabiting couples unprepared for the reality when their relationship breaks down. 

Do proposals for reform have support? 

Most definitely. Many lawyers, legal practitioners and groups of cross-party MP’s feel that the current law is outdated, and no longer fit for purpose in a modern day society. The Chair of Resolution’s Family Law Reform Group, Jo Edwards, was very swift to welcome the Labour Party’s proposals earlier this month, and you can read more about what she had to say here

Despite this, all attempts at reform have so far been unsuccessful. In November of this year, the government rejected almost all of the proposals put forward by the Women and Equalities Committee. Their position was that all existing work regarding family law and marriage itself must be concluded before the possibility of cohabitation reform is revisited. If Labour were to win the next general election, it would be interesting to see if they follow through with their proposed reform. 

How can cohabiting couples protect themselves in the meantime?

With no firm structure of reform having the go ahead just yet, if you’re cohabiting with your partner, it’s really important that you take the necessary steps to protect your interests. That way, you’ll have a sense of clarity and security in the event that you separate. 

Some of the options include:

  • Entering in a cohabitation agreement.
  • Seeking advice about the best way to own your property as a cohabiting, unmarried couple. 
  • A declaration of trust. 
  • Making a will. 

If you need advice about any of the options above, the team here at Harrogate Family Law can help. All you need to do is get in touch with today to arrange your no obligation consultation.