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Cohabitants’ rights should be made law, say family lawyers

Enshrining in legislation more protection for cohabiting couples is top of most family lawyers’ wishlists, according to a recent survey of the profession by a leading organisation of independent assurance, tax and advisory firms.

15 October 2012

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Grant Thornton’s Matrimonial Survey 2012 showed that for the second year in a row the rights of cohabiting couples was the most popular area of reform among family practitioners, with 26 per cent citing it as the issue around which they would most like to see a change in legislation. It was closely followed by the desire to see the introduction of no-fault divorce (25 per cent) and clearer guidance on self-help following the Imerman ruling (23 per cent).

However, while many family lawyers believe the rights of cohabitants should be enshrined in law, the majority (42 per cent) said that the rights of cohabiting couples should not equal the legal rights given to married couples, with the consensus being that any system implemented should be on an ‘opt-in’ basis.

Wives continue to petition for divorce more, with 59 per cent of the 139 respondents to the survey stating this was the case, and only one per cent saying that husbands had petitioned more than wives. The remaining 40 per cent said that it was equal.

The recession continues to be an issue for parties considering divorce, with it likely accounting for the fall in value of family assets. The average total value of family assets was less than £500,000 in 35 per cent of cases in 2011, compared to only 18 per cent the previous year.

Husbands and wives received an equal split of total family wealth in 32 per cent of the cases that respondents to the survey had handled, with wives receiving more than their husbands in 62 per cent of divorces in 2011, and husbands only receiving more than their wives six per cent of the time.

The profession is split on whether arbitration will become a significant method for resolving family disputes in the next five years (48 per cent of respondents said that it would and 52 per cent said that it would not). Those who believed arbitration will take off thought it would be cheaper and quicker.

The profession also believes that arbitration may become popular in London and with high-net-worth individuals and celebrities, who would benefit from the confidential nature of the proceedings. However, it was considered that it would have little impact in the provinces and with the average client.

Sally Longworth, a partner in the forensic and investigation services at Grant Thornton, said: “While women are still the main instigators of divorce and appear to get the lion’s share of the matrimonial assets, the recession continues to have an effect on financial orders.

“First, the recession has driven down the value of matrimonial assets, especially the family home. Second, and of increasing importance, is the impact the recession has had on the parties’ ability to extract funds for a settlement. Banks are becoming increasingly reluctant to lend money to fund divorces, which has meant that the courts are having to resort to more innovative settlements.”

For the full results of Grant Thornton’s Matrimonial Survey, see http://www.grant-thornton.co.uk/Global/Publication_pdf/Matrimonial-Surve...

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