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On Friday a Private Members' Bill to give rights to couples who live together but are not married, comes before the House of Lords for its second reading.
The Cohabitation Bill was introduced by Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, a human rights lawyer who successfully introduced the Forced Marriages Bill and was instrumental in developing the recent Civil Partnership Act.
There are currently over two million cohabiting couples in the UK. By 2021, this number is expected to rise to nearly 3 million couples.
The Bill is part of a Living Together campaign, launched by Resolution and Lord Lester's Odysseus Trust.
Under the proposed Bill, compensation could be awarded where one partner had sacrificed their career, or had otherwise incurred financial loss, to the benefit of the other partner. Typically, this is likely to occur where one partner has stayed at home to look after children. Unlike in cases of divorce, however, cohabitants would not be expected to meet each other's future needs by means of maintenance payments and there would be no principle that the parties should share their assets equally.
The scheme would only apply to cohabitants who have had a child together or who have lived together for a minimum period. The Law Commission, who published a report to Parliament in July 2007 setting out a series of recommendations to government, recommends that the minimum period for couples without children should be set within a range of two to five years. Couples who wished to do so could opt out of the scheme by a written agreement to that effect. They would then be free to make their own arrangements for what would happen to their assets in the event of separation.
In March 2008, the Ministry of Justice responded to the Law Commission's report by announcing that it would be taking no further action on the recommendations, choosing to wait until research findings from the implementation of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006, which came into effect in 2007, are available.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, published in January 2008, over 50% of people wrongly think that couples who have lived together for a while have the same rights as married or civil partners and that a 'common law marriage' has recognised legal status.
The survey also showed that nine out of ten people think a cohabiting partner should have a right to financial provision on separation if the relationship has been long-standing, includes children and has involved the prioritisation of one partner's career over the other.
Commenting on the Bill, 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."