New bill to tackle living together 'injustice'

14 JUL 2008

A new Bill to give rights to couples who live together will be introduced this autumn by Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, a veteran human rights lawyer who successfully introduced the Forced Marriages Bill and was instrumental in developing the recent Civil Partnership Act.

In an email sent to Newswatch Lord Lester said: "Sensibly drafted legislation is urgently needed to tackle the vulnerability not only of unmarried cohabiting couples and their children but also co-dependent carers and siblings who live together. It is a scandal in modern Britain that existing law does almost nothing to prevent such people from losing their home or sliding into poverty if their relationship breaks down or their partner dies."

The Bill's introduction is part of a new Living Together campaign, launched by Resolution and Lord Lester's Odysseus Trust.

Joyce and Sybil Burden, the elderly sisters who took their 30-year fight to protect their home from inheritance tax right up to the European Court of Human Rights, added their support to the campaign: "We have always tried to secure each other's future after the death of one, but have found it impossible under this system. It was a bitter disappointment to lose our case at the European Court. We do hope you can help us, as after all these years, we are getting quite past it for ourselves."

One in six couples in the UK co-habit and do not marry according to the Office of National Statistics and this is predicted to rise to one in four by 2031. More than half of cohabitants (53%) still falsely believe in the existence of Common Law marriage. However, the Government has decided to postpone action on recent Law Commission proposals to reform cohabitation law pending research into the cost and benefits of reforms introduced in Scotland.

David Allison, Chair of Resolution's cohabitation law reform task force, says that Britain's more than two million cohabiting couples and co-dependents should not be made to wait any longer for justice: "The Government's proposed research won't even begin until 2010 and if cost was the issue, one has to ask why the Government specifically excluded research on cost from the Law Commission's original brief. Many other countries, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand already have protection for cohabiting couples. It is high time that Britain had a family legal system fit for the 21st century."

The Bill would protect the vulnerable without equating living together to marriage or civil partnership in every way. For example, the Bill would apply only to people living in the same household for a minimum period of time in which the parties have provided a financial or other commitment to each other.

To protect freedom of choice, couples who wish to do so could "opt out" of the scheme provided legal advice is sought by both parties to protect the vulnerable.

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