Cohabitation and our cowardly lawmakers
March 11, 2008 7 comments
Cut the red tape: why won’t politicians help cohabiting couples?
I saw Baroness Thatcher on TV three times this weekend. I saw her twice on the Spitting Image reruns and laughed at the satirical takes on the absolute power she wielded over her fellow politicians. Then I saw her on the news, aged 82, leaving hospital. She was clearly very frail, but determined to walk unaided, despite her age and infirmity. Agree with her politics or not – and sometimes I did not – her spirit and fearlessness remain admirable.
Following last week’s debacle over cohabitation, I wish that our present leaders had such backbone! More than ever, I am convinced that in its dying years, our Government has become bogged down in red tape and paper-shuffling.
We have learned that the Government won’t be changing the law for cohabitants. Plans to do so are being held “in abeyance” while we wait and see how the Scots fare. This is because the Scots, who certainly don’t defer to opinions expressed in English media, have already changed their own law.
The message from Whitehall is, as usual, wrapped up in bureaucratic jargon and more red tape. Now taxpayers’ money is to be wasted on a futile “comparison” exercise; after that, I suppose, the subject will be quietly put to bed.
For goodness sake! Why such fright? Despite the promise that marriage is for life, a married couple can still go to court and end their marriage. When this happens, the law will uncomplainingly adjudicate and resolve all issues between husband and wife.
So what’s so much worse about legislating for cohabitation? We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Tens of thousands of couples are cohabiting. My firm is only one of thousands throughout England and Wales – and I can guarantee that at least one cohabitation breakdown is dealt with in my office every day.
Marriage is going out of fashion. As fewer couples decide to marry, and fewer couples divorce, an increasing number of couples live together. There are, conveniently, no statistics for cohabitating couples whose relationships end.
Legally, married couples cannot divorce before arrangements for any children are first agreed. Yet tens of thousands of children never come before the court because their estranged parents were never married.
If we are so concerned about the children of divorced parents, why are children of cohabiting families thus condemned as second class citizens?
I have been involved with the proposed changes to the law, in my capacity as a member of the Advisory Group to the Law Commission. I know that radical legislation which equates cohabitation with marriage, is not proposed. Instead, the Law Commission recommended very moderate, limited legislation. It would obtain some form of justice for the tens of thousands of cohabiting couples, from all strata of society, who encounter problems on the breakdown of their relationships. It wouldn’t be a charter for ‘loadsamoney’, but would recognise economic loss caused by the relationship and would make awards accordingly. It happens in every other area of civil law.
People caught up in the mess of a breakdown are crying out for help. As they attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives, can it be right that our answer is, “Told you so- you should have got married?” Why force people to do something they don’t want?
Some of those who live together do know that there will be few – if any – comebacks if the relationship ends. However, many couples are not bothered about the consequences, irrespective of whether a child is born, because of the popular misconception that “common law marriage” exists. Then they find out that the law can help married couples and same sex couples – but not them.
I would bet that the majority of Middle England has cohabited at one time or another – including my husband and me, before we did decide to marry!
Why is there no-one in Parliament with the stomach to push this change through?