Court ruling sends property warning to unmarried couples

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The Independent Online

In a case which affects Britain's 2.3 million co-habiting couples, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a county court can decide the fairest way of dividing property when unmarried couples split up.

With no set legislative guidelines about what happens to property in such instances, the ruling raises the risk that local judges will have different interpretations of "fairness", which may leave some splitting couples happier than others.

The case involved hairdresser Patricia Jones and her former partner, ice-cream salesman Leonard Kernott. The couple split 18 years ago after living together in Thundersley in Essex for eight years. But when Kernott left in 1993, Jones remained and raised the couple's two children. The pair disagreed about how to split their £245,000 house.

An earlier Court of Appeal ruling had given Kernott half the value of the home, but five judges in the Supreme Court reverted to a county court ruling that he was only eligible to 10 per cent. That may seem fair but the ruling leaves uncertainty for unmarried homeowners, legal experts warned.

"At the moment, the rights of cohabitants as recommended by the Law Commission is a legal area characterised by ambiguity and uncertainty," said Gareth Curtis, a specialist in legal disputes involving cohabiting couples at the business law firm DWF. "This decision is a clear signal from the Supreme Court to Parliament that it needs to clearly define the rights of cohabitants."

Sandra Davis, head of family law at Mishcon de Reya, said: "The continued failure of Parliament to introduce legislation which protects the property interests of cohabiting couples in this country is a disgrace.

"Until Parliament addresses this issue, the law will remain opaque and unsatisfactory and many other separating couples will be left in the same position as Ms Jones and Mr Kernott."

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