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Cohabitation laws in need of urgent reform, says lawyer

The rise in unmarried couples living together is leading to a rise in complex disputes and strengthening calls for an overhaul of cohabitation laws, says a specialist family lawyer.

7 November 2012

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Elizabeth Hicks, a partner at Irwin Mitchell, believes unmarried couples face issues that can be more complicated than a divorce when children and property are involved and the law needs updating to reflect their status.

“Disputes between couples who have been cohabiting are rising and are becoming more complex as people buy property and bring up children together without marrying,” said Hicks.

“One of the problems is that cohabitation laws need updating to clarify the legal status and rights of unmarried couples living together.”

Figures show that the number of unmarried couples living together has doubled since 1996 to 1.8m and there are now almost two million children being brought up by unmarried cohabiting parents.

The number of same-sex couples living together has increased from 16,000 to 135,000 since the mid-1990s, with the number of gay couples bringing up children trebling in the past two years to 12,000.

Hicks believes that debunking the common law partner myth is also crucial to advancing rights of cohabiting couples.

“It is a common myth that people don’t realise there is no such thing in English law as a common law partner. If a relationship breaks down there is very little protection for the weaker partner, typically the woman and often the mother,” said Hicks.

“The division of property is based on complex trust principles rather than what is fair and there is no provision in law for any form of maintenance for cohabitants even if they’ve always been supported by the other party.”

A recent survey undertaken by Irwin Mitchell found that 74 per cent of solicitors and barristers working in the family sector felt that cohabitation laws need updating.

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