Letter to the Guardian: Cohabiting couples need greater legal protection

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Today is the busiest day of the year for weddings, yet marriage numbers are declining. Currently one in eight adults in England and Wales are cohabiting, a trend steadily increasing since 2002.

Society is changing, but sadly the law lags behind. A recent survey showed as many as two in three cohabiting couples were unaware that there is no such thing as “common law marriage” in England and Wales. These couples mistakenly believe they have the same legal and financial rights and protections as married couples.

This misunderstanding can lead to significant problems if the relationship ends, as under current law it is possible to live with someone for decades and simply walk away without taking any responsibility. Most commonly, this can lead to injustices for women and children, particularly in cases where a mother has given up or reduced her work to raise a family.

As a crucial step towards securing fair outcomes for millions of people, we urge the government to take steps to bring forward, as a minimum, basic protections for cohabiting couples.

In the interim, the government must also raise public awareness of the lack of protections in place and challenge the common law marriage myth. Only by understanding they are at risk can couples take steps to protect their family if they separate or if they are left bereaved.

Graeme Fraser Cohabitation Committee chair, Resolution
Deirdre Fottrell QC and Noel Arnold Co-chairs, Association of Lawyers for Children
Andrew Walker QC Chair, The Bar Council
Philip Sherwood President, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives
Frances Judd QC Chair, Family Law Bar Association
Bob Greig Director, OnlyDads
Rebecca Giraud Director, OnlyMums
Julie Bishop Director, Law Centres Network
Penny Scott Chair of the Law Society of England and Wales Family Law Committee
Steve Hynes Director, Legal Action Group 
Jenny Beck and Nicola Mackintosh QC Co-chairs, Legal Aid Practitioners Group 
Penny Mansfield Director, One Plus One 
Simon Wilson Chair, Relate
Estelle Du Boulay Director, Rights of Women