Stepfathers, Mothers' Cohabitants and 'Uncles'

02 APR 2009

Professor Chris Barton, Retired Family Law Teacher and a Vice-President of the Family Mediators Association

In late 2008 there was heavy interest in the Baby P case and in the trials arising from the Shannon Matthews disappearance. The coverage brought into sharp relief the uncertain terminology used, and not just in the media, to describe the various relationships which may exist between a woman's children and her new man. (This is hardly surprising given that, unlike the 'descriptive' Sudanese system under which no two relatives share the same name, we are even unsure what an aunt or a brother-in-law is.) The purpose of this article is to appraise the legalities of those connections and the suitability of their overlaps and differentials. For the avoidance of doubt, 'stepfather' here means 'mother's husband', 'mother's cohabitant' means her resident ('live in') mate and 'uncle' her non-resident (or possibly lodging) lover. So both the first two men share households with their domestic partners and the latters' children from an earlier relationship. We will concentrate on them.

Of course, some children have stepmothers, fathers' cohabitants or 'aunties' instead of the male equivalents. But as single-parent families are more commonly mother-headed, new resident 'partners', formal or otherwise, are far more likely to be men. So in one survey, 96% of all step-parent adoption applications (see below) were made by mothers and their new husbands (J Masson et al Mine, Yours or Ours (HMSO, 1983)). We should note that although the two sets of laws are pretty much the same, new men in mothers' lives pose different social issues. (For the sake of completeness, we should also acknowledge that a new 'partnership' may be same sex, irrespective of the earlier one. Similarly, references to marriage here include civil partnership, as per the amendments wrought by the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to all relevant statutes cited below: we need not spell this out all the time, given that there were only some 53,000 civilly-partnered persons in the UK by the end of 2007 (see http://www.statistics. gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1685) as opposed to over 20 million spouses.)

To read the rest of this article, see April [2009] Family Law journal.

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