Children in non-married households risk greater depths of poverty under current family law.

Legal rules don’t fit modern family life

Whilst marriage is still the most common family arrangement, the number of couples cohabiting is increasing and yet the law does not reflect or protect these modern living arrangements.

Lawyers from the University of Exeter have led a number of research projects on cohabitation and have been funded by the Nuffield Foundation to draw together reports from different universities to coincide with the debate on Cohabitation Bill in the House of Lords.

The report shows that the majority of cohabiting couples believe that they have the same legal rights as if they were married. However, this is not the case and becomes an issue when couples split up or one of the partners dies without making a will. This is particularly damaging to the welfare of children who are likely to have a far lower standard of living following a family break up.

In a divorce, children and their primary carer are given financial protection, yet research shows that they still are more likely to be live in poverty after divorce. For cohabiting parents there is less financial protection which has an even worse impact on children. In married couples assets are redistributed to meet at a minimum the caring parents minimum needs, in addition to those of the children. For cohabiting parents there is no such family law protection or redistribution of assets from one partner to another.

Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter commented, ‘Given one of the principal aims of family law is to protect the most vulnerable family members when relationships end, family law is currently missing its target by not extending its protection to cohabiting couples.’

The proposal to reform the law to ensure that it can meet the reasonable needs of the cohabitant and the children is being led by the distinguished Human Rights lawyer, Lord Lester QC who introduced Civil Partnership legislation as well as the Forced Marriage Act 2007.

The concern that introducing a Bill which extends legal rights to cohabiting couples may be seen to undermine the institution of marriage has proved unfounded. Current research indicates that giving cohabiting couples rights does not reduce marriage rates, further more non traditional families are growing in number across the western world irrespective of the way they are treated by family law.

Date: 13 March 2009

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