Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss: 'There is now no financial incentive to marry'

From the annual Law Reform Lecture, by the former head of the High Court Family Division, delivered at Inner Temple, London
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Marriage was once considered to be for life, but marriage is now often entered into without any real effort or intention to make it last and it survives only until one spouse chooses to bring it to an end. Recent statistics show that the trend in marriage is declining year by year and the press has recently been full of dire forebodings about its virtual demise within the next 20 or 30 years.

Marriage does continue to have advantages which are not sufficiently trumpeted. Support for marriage would have economic as well as social advantages for the public and for the state. The Government proclaims its support for the family and it is and should be looking at ideas to carry this forward in the community, particularly among the young. It is however a sad fact that the Government has done nothing practical to support married couples.

In the past married couples enjoyed tax concessions which the Government has withdrawn. There is now no financial incentive to marry or remain married and a financial incentive to cohabit and not to marry. This outcome which contributes to the downgrading of the status of marriage is particularly sad since the statistics show that marriage remains the most stable of all relationships between men and women, even with the incidence of divorce. The average length of cohabitation is said to be three years.

The recent Civil Partnership Act applies to single sex relationships. Deliberately that legislation does not apply to cohabitation between a man and a woman. As I understand the thinking, the decision not to include heterosexual couples was to encourage marriage.

I have the gravest doubts whether the omission in this Act of those who cohabit will have that positive effect on marriage, and it leaves a substantial section of society liable to elaborate litigation and potentially unjust outcomes if or when their relationship breaks down. In my view post-separation rights to cohabiting couples should be included in family legislation and marriage should be supported in other more effective ways.