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Disappointment as government shelves cohabitation reform

No evidence that change is urgently needed, justice minister says

19 September 2011

The Law Commission has responded with visible disappointment at the government’s decision not to go ahead with proposed reforms of cohabitation law for the time being.

“We hope that implementation will not be delayed beyond the early days of the next parliament, in view of the hardship and injustice caused by the current law,” said Professor Elizabeth Cooke, the commissioner in charge of the project.

In a written ministerial statement last week, Jonathan Djanogly indicated the government would not proceed with the proposal during this parliament due to lack of evidence.

In its 2007 report, Cohabitation: The Financial Consequences of Relationship Breakdown, the commission recommended that financial remedies should be available to cohabitants on separation provided certain eligibility criteria were met.

The Labour government which was in place at the time said it would await the outcome of further research into how similar rules were applied in Scotland following the introduction of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006.

But in his statement of 6 September the justice minister put a lid on any hopes of change any time soon.

“The findings of the research into the Scottish legislation do not provide us with a sufficient basis for a change in the law,” Djanogly said.

He went on: “The family justice system is in a transitional period, with major reforms already on the horizon. We do not therefore intend to take forward the Law Commission’s recommendations for reform of cohabitation law in this parliamentary term.”

Responding on behalf of the commission, Professor Cooke said the existing law was uncertain and expensive to apply, and, because it was not designed for cohabitants, often gave rise to results that were unjust.

“The prevalence of cohabitation, and of the birth of children to couples who live together, means that the need for reform of the law can only become more pressing over time,” she said.

The commission’s 2007 report proposed that couples would be eligible if they had a child together or had lived together for a minimum period – the commission suggested a range between two and five years.

Under the proposed scheme the applicant would have to show that the respondent retained a benefit, or that the applicant had a continuing economic disadvantage, as a result of contributions made to the relationship.

The value of any award would depend on the extent of the retained benefit or continuing economic disadvantage.

The court would have discretion to grant such financial relief as might be appropriate to deal with these matters, and in doing so would be required to give first consideration to the welfare of any dependent children.

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Marriage & Civil partnership Children Charities