Cohabitants set for same rights as married couples

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The Independent Online

Unmarried couples could gain similar financial rights to those who are married under conclusive proposals released today by the Law Commission. The commission provides independent legal advise to Parliament which has a strong record of being implemented.

The rules - under which one partner could share in the other's wealth or financial support - would apply to couples who have shared a child, or lived together for more than two years.

Stuart Bridge, of the Law Commission, said: "More and more families involve couples who are living together but who are not married. The law that currently applies to resolve property disputes between such couples on separation is unclear and complicated, and it can produce unfair outcomes. This causes serious hard-ship not only to the co-habitants themselves, but also to their children."

The Commission says that many cohabiting couples mistakenly believe in a "common law marriage myth," which means they think they enjoy similar legal rights to married couples.

Mr Bridge denied the new proposals would "undermine" marriage, pointing out the plans "would not apply to all cohabitants and where it did apply would only give rise to remedies relating to contributions made to the relationship."

He added: "We consider that our scheme strikes the right balance between the need to alleviate hardship and the need to protect couples' freedom of choice."

Nonetheless, the floated ideas look set to spark controversy and polarise opinion, with some traditionalists likely to disapprove while progressive campaigners welcome what they regard as long-overdue legislation.

Official figures show there are more than 2.2 million unmarried couples living together in England and Wales, and the number of children being brought up by them had by 2001 - the last official count - reached 1.25 million. Government forecasts reportedly show that there will be 3.8 million cohabiting couples by 2031.

The family lawyers' organisation Resolution last night said that over 70 per cent of family lawyers it surveyed believed the current law was in need of change. Its spokesman David Allison said: "We fully support the Law Commission's proposals ... and will be pressing the Government to introduce new legislation without delay."

Ministers asked the Law Commission to review the status of unmarried couples two years ago. A similar scheme has been in place in Scotland since last year, without the minimum period of cohabitation.

If adopted, such a move could create "clear blue water" between the Government and the Tories, who under David Cameron are seeking to make the traditional family a centrepiece of their policy. Mr Cameron recently welcomed proposals by Iain Duncan Smith for a "Social Justice Commission" for tax breaks for married couples.

Cohabitants could sign contracts allowing them to opt out - unlike in the case of divorce - and would not need to meet maintenance payments and there would be no principle that assets be shared equally.

The Law Commission was set up in 1965 to provide legal advice for MPs. It says more than two thirds of its proposals have been adopted by, or are being considered, by Parliament.

The proposed rules would apply to both heterosexual and homosexual partnerships.