Ruling to set legal precedent for cohabiting couples' rights

The Supreme Court is to decide whether an ice-cream salesman who left his partner nearly 20 years ago is still entitled to half of the value of the house they shared.

In a landmark case, five Supreme Court justices yesterday heard how Leonard Kernott, 51, and hairdresser Patricia Jones, 56, split up in 1993 after sharing a house in Thundersley, Essex, for eight years. The couple bought the house – which is now worth around £240,000 – as joint legal owners in 1985 and took out a joint mortgage. But after Mr Kernott moved out, Ms Jones paid all of the mortgage payments, maintained the house and brought up the couple's two children.

Last year, the Court of Appeal held that Mr Kernott was still entitled to half of the value of the house because the couple owned equal shares when they separated. One appeal judge, Lord Justice Wall, said the case was a "cautionary tale" for unmarried couples contemplating buying homes together. Earlier hearings on the case in lower courts had concluded that Ms Jones should receive 90 per cent of the value of the house.

Lawyers say the Supreme Court's decision could alter the legal landscape for unmarried couples arguing over property after separating. Marilyn Stowe, a senior partner at the firm Stowe Family Law, said: "At present, unmarried couples are unable to apply to the court for regulation of their financial affairs. What cohabiting couples have is a hotchpotch of outmoded and outdated property law."

The Supreme Court justices yesterday reserved judgment to a date to be fixed.

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