Lawyers have long argued that the legal position of the mistress and the co-habitee is anomalous. The Law Commission, which submits recommendations on law reforms to the Government, is examining how best to confer rights on co-habitees and mistresses with legitimate claims on children, property and money.
For co-habitees, the Commission is likely to recommend the same rights as those enjoyed by married couples. Legally, a mistress is defined as someone having a sexual relationship with a married man who pays for her maintenance.
The mistress cannot at present make any legal claim for maintenance, or pension rights. Even if the mistress and the man end up living together no automatic rights are acquired.
Old-fashioned property law also means it is still difficult to make a claim on a property bought by the man for the mistress in which to carry on the affair. The London legal firm Withers, which acts for private clients and public figures, said any proposed changes are welcome. The firm is developing a specialist practice to advise the latter-day Christine Keelers or Sara Keays.
Mark Harper, of Withers, said a mistress is, at present, often better off waiting for the man to die rather than claiming against him during his lifetime. There is in law, he added, no such thing as a common-law wife or a common-law husband and there is no such thing as a common-law mistress. "If your boyfriend was maintaining you immediately before his death, you can make a claim for maintenance and capital from his estate, irrespective of the terms of any will," said Mr Harper.
Withers has already advised in several mistress cases. A "call girl" who had been having an affair with a married Saudi Arabian man won pounds 80,000 by claiming a beneficial interest in a flat in Docklands, east London, in which they had conducted their affair. The woman had persuaded the man it was the "English thing to do" to buy the flat in joint names.
In another case a married man had started an affair with the family nanny. Michael Gouriet, an expert on mistress law in the firm, said the man tried to get rid of her by encouraging her to go on holiday, then hired a taxi to meet her at the airport, which whisked her off to a new flat with a short-term lease. He then disappeared. "He was at his wit's end and was desperate to get rid of her," said Mr Gouriet.
The relationship had resulted in twins and the nanny was able to claim pounds 200,000 on behalf of the children. Because the law does not recognise a mistress, this, and the claim upon the property, is usually the only way a mistress can seek financial compensation. Mr Harper said: "It's really only maintenance through the back door."
But not only women fall foul of the law against mistresses. The firm is also advising a man who had an affair with a married woman and is bringing a claim against her.
"The one thing that is common in all these cases is the varied complexity of modern personal relationships," said Mr Harper.
The Law Commission is looking at many of these situations in its study on the law relating to unmarried couples.Reuse content