There is a second reading of Lord Lester’s Private Member’s Bill on cohabitation on Friday 13th of March in the House of Lords. The proposals in the Bill would allow the court to make the same type of financial orders as on divorce where a couple (of the same or opposite sex who are not married or in a civil partnership) have been living together for two years or more, or have a child together. The practical effect of the change would be to remove the distinction between marriage and cohabiting relationships on relationship breakdown.
The Parliamentary page including the text of the Cohabitation Bill can be found here.
This is a Private Member’s Bill, not a Government one. However, in the past Lord
Lester produced a Private Members Bill which was a forerunner to the Government’s own Civil Partnership Act 2004, so we need to seriously take account of the potential influence this Bill may have to undermine marriage. Private Member’s Bills can on infrequent occasions become law.
The background to this Bill is a Law Commission report published in July 2007 on
the financial consequences of cohabitation, which recommended a change in the
law to introduce a limited regime of financial “compensation” for former
cohabitees on relationship breakdown. Details of the Law Commission report and
executive summary can be found here.
In March 2008, the Government interim response to the Law Commission report was to take no further action and await the outcome of research, as shown here. Ministers were reported to want to consider the cost implications.
Lord Lester’s Bill is much more wide ranging than the Law Commission recommendations. It will introduce a new law similar to our current divorce law for all cohabiting couples. It will apply to any cohabiting couple who has lived together for two years or has had a child even if they do not live together. The two years do not even have to be fully continuous and can compromise several separate periods as long as the gaps do not add up to more than six months.
Although the basis upon which orders under the proposed new law are made will be
at variance from current divorce law (for example, there will be a presumption
that the couple will be financially self-supporting with maintenance claims
generally limited to a period of 3 years, and claims will be limited to
“reasonable needs”), the effect in practice will be to remove the distinction
between marriage and cohabiting relationships on relationship breakdown.
However, there is provision for couples to “opt-out” of the obligations the new
law would impose, by entering into a written agreement after the receipt of
independent legal advice by each party.
Response At first blush, the proposals in this Bill may seem attractive in that
they will encourage parties to take responsibility for the consequences of
informal relationships. However the inherent instability of cohabiting
relationships, which are commitment vulnerable, is of great concern because of
the impact of family breakdown, in particular on the children. Statistics show
that only 35 per cent of children born into cohabiting unions will live with
both parents throughout their childhood (to their 16th birthday), compared with
70 per cent of children born within marriage. Millennium Cohort Study data on
15,000 mothers shows that during the first three years of a child’s life, the
risk of family breakdown faced by those who describe themselves as
‘cohabiting’, is 3.5 times greater than that faced by married parents. The
impact on children of family breakdown is of course well-documented. Any legal
change which lowers the status of marriage and makes relationships that are not
characterised by commitment more attractive to people at the expense of
marriage is therefore unwelcome, and likely to be detrimental.
Please pray for the protection of marriage as a stabling foundation of our
nation, and for life-long commitment to bring up children in a secure and
stable family environment. The best way for parents to take responsibility for
their children and one another is to get married.
Please also pray against any legal change that will ultimately undermine this
Where possible, and particularly if you are in communication with Members of the
House of Lords contact them to register your concern about this Bill, the
underlying philosophy which undermines marriage, and which is in practice
likely to lead to the encouragement of informal relationships that are not
characterised by commitment.