Focus: So why do we still have to swap rings and sign up for marriage?

Because the law forces us to. Without a wedding ring, a man does not have the automatic right to see his children, and a woman won't inherit his pension. But now, says Katy Guest, there are plans to change that with a contract dubbed 'marriage lite'
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The Independent Online

From this day forward, if the Lord Chancellor has his way, more couples than ever will be forced to love, comfort, honour and protect each other, forsaking all others, as long as they both shall live. But Lord Falconer is not legislating for an increase in marriage. Far from it: instead he has asked the Law Commission to draw up legislation giving cohabitees the same rights and responsibilities as those who are married - whether they like it or not.

From this day forward, if the Lord Chancellor has his way, more couples than ever will be forced to love, comfort, honour and protect each other, forsaking all others, as long as they both shall live. But Lord Falconer is not legislating for an increase in marriage. Far from it: instead he has asked the Law Commission to draw up legislation giving cohabitees the same rights and responsibilities as those who are married - whether they like it or not.

It's easy to see why people would be reluctant to spend the national average of £16,000 on a wedding when they are happy as they are. But the Lord Chancellor fears that far too many couples have fallen for the myth of the common-law husband or wife. They believe that if they move into a home with their beloved, bear them children and share their lives and salaries, they will be protected should their partner die intestate or run off with the milkman. They are wrong. Instead, fathers who are not married to the mother of their children have less chance of winning contact with them through a court. A woman whose partner dies will not necessarily inherit a house, or a pension, in his name. Many disability allowances and tax benefits cannot be shared. According to the law, these relationships simply do not exist.

News that the Law Commission is discussing new legislation has incensed many people. But the battleground has formed along unexpected lines. Some have seen the statistics that say marriages are down from 83 a year per thousand single women in 1961 to 33 per thousand in 2000 and fear the end of marriage altogether. Patricia Morgan is one. Although she is the author of Marriage-Lite, the book that has already inspired the cynical description of the new legislation, she has little sympathy for couples who cohabit with their eyes closed. "We tell people that if you smoke you get lung cancer," she points out. "Why can't we tell them that if they're not married, they don't have these rights? Otherwise, what is the point of marriage any more?"

Having taken an overview of much of the research, Morgan is convinced that cohabitation is the wrong way forward. According to figures published by Civitas, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, it does look like a fragile arrangement. Of cohabiting couples who do not marry, only about 18 per cent survive at least 10 years. This is compared with 75 per cent of people who marry.

"The whole point of marriage is responsibility, love or no love," says Morgan. "Cohabitation is a very easy thing for men. They don't want the responsibility, but they do want the sex and the shopping done. The Government seems to think you can have a state of peripatetic parenting: men dropping in to do a bit of fathering in every household [where they have children]. Endorsing these fragile, flimsy relationships that damage women and children is socially irresponsible."

For Vanessa Lloyd Platt, a divorce and matrimonial lawyer who has practised for 28 years, the opposite is true. "Generally it is [cohabiting] women who have been losing out," she points out. "There is no such thing as a common-law wife. People like me have to tell them that, after 17 years of living with someone, they have no rights whatsoever."

Lloyd Platt points out that unmarried fathers, or "putative fathers", in law, do not have "parental rights" over their children's medical treatment. By the same token, an unmarried woman is not the legal "next of kin" of her partner, meaning she cannot sign a consent form for his treatment in hospital. In a divorce, a married woman might receive 50 per cent of capital in her husband's name; an unmarried partner will receive nothing. An unmarried partner would also have to pay inheritance tax on the family home and capital gains tax on expensive gifts. Married couples are exempt.

The current legal chimera can even be detrimental to unwedded harmony, according to relationship counsellors at Relate. "Lots of cohabiting couples think they are already covered by the law," worries Julia Cole. "They're not. If people knew where they stood, it would help tremendously. At the moment people live in a bit of a no-man's land."

She does not believe this is the end of marriage. "If you ask all the brides and grooms who are getting married this summer, they wouldn't say they're doing it for legal reasons," she scoffs. "Commitment ceremonies might blossom but people will continue to make [a marriage-type] commitment. And I don't think there's any cynicism in saying 'We're happy to be together in this sort of way and not another.' This legislation might even bolster marriage. If people are not having to get married for legal reasons, it might change the nature of marriage."

The Law Society has been campaigning since 2003 for similar legislation. "The law must be reformed to reflect modern life," says its president, Carolyn Kirby. "We will be lobbying for the law to be changed to protect the vulnerable."

But Patricia Morgan is not persuaded. "This is a very anti-family, anti-marriage agenda," she believes. "It has taken away the language of marriage and it has taken away the economic foundations for marriage. A lot of married couples find that very insulting."

However, the new law has an unlikely ally in the Very Rev Nicholas Berry, the Dean of Gloucester cathedral. "I'd encourage people to get married, but to do that by taking away their rights isn't particularly reasonable," he says. "People should have rights because they are people and they have chosen to live together. I think it's good legislation."

Nor does he fear for the future of the institution of marriage. "I think it would be a very poor basis for a marriage if couples were only doing it for financial benefit," he says. "And I think the statistics show that people marry out of free choice. About 80 per cent of those who marry in church and 90 per cent of those who marry in a registry office give the same address," he adds. "It looks like people are living together beforehand, anyway. Even if they don't tell the vicar."

'We don't want paper contracts'

Gerard Dugdill, 37, and Kamala Panday, 38, are directors of Blue Moon Publishing, which runs the Pink Ribbon Awards for the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign. They live in London and have two children

Gerard

"The girl I fancied at school told me I would never get married. Maybe she was right. But I am married - I always have been and I always will be, as far as I am concerned, whatever the law says.

"We met as post-grad students 14 years ago but have not made plans for what happens if we part, or one of us dies, because we are not going to split up, we are not going to die. We fail to plan anything. If the law changes it won't affect us. We know lots of couples who have married and divorced in the time we have been together. How many? Are you serious? Only about 1,200,435 couples! "

Kamala

"Getting married requires you to think about doing something, whereas not getting married is less about making a decision. It's not the same as having a baby, for instance.

"My parents have traditional Asian attitudes and would not allow Gerard into their house when we decided not to get married. Eventually I said unless they allowed us to come as a family they could not see me or the grandchildren. Unfortunately, they chose to disown us. This was obviously quite hurtful for me and my daughter, who had grown very attached to her grandmother. It also shocked me; my view of parental love is that it is unconditional. I hope they will change their minds.

"I was once told if Gerard died, instead of his shares in our business coming back to me, they would go to his dad, which is worrying. Our home is in both our names and we haven't made wills. When you don't believe in signing paper contracts, you tend to follow that through into other areas of your life."

'For some couples, marriage should be compulsory'

Louis Barfe, 31, and Susannah Godman, 36, married in September 2003. He is a writer and she is a literary agent. They live in London and Lowestoft

Louis

"I didn't used to believe in marriage. Meeting Susannah was what made me think it was a good idea. Then, when we realised you could get married on Southwold pier, we looked at each other and said 'Let's do the show right here', or words to that effect. I have always loved piers and the seaside, and this one has a giant water clock with copper figures who simulate weeing on the hour.

"The whole state of marriage seems to bring with it an agreeable feeling of security and smugness. Financially we're no different to when we were single, as I've insisted that we keep everything separate. The main point was to have the excuse for a lovely, gluttonous, drunken party with all of our family and friends, celebrating the fact that each of us had found someone who could put up with the other. On the day, the relief in some quarters of the room was palpable."

Susannah

"With Louis, I always knew that this was it and I didn't have to worry about it again, whether or not we got married. We were both only-children but had found our evil twin. My mother once said, 'One should only marry someone if one can't bear not to.' I'd never remotely felt like marrying anyone else, but with Louis it seemed right almost instantly.

"Somehow it does feel different. I find it soothing. Nothing fiscal has changed, but one day we will do the decent thing and combine forces. Legislation like this wouldn't have affected me, although it sounds like a good thing. But I like marriage's old-fashioned feel. For some couples, marriage should be compulsory. You know them when you see them."

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