March 2, 2015

Why we want protection for cohabiting couples

Resolution has launched a manifesto calling for wide sweeping changes to divorce including ‘blame free’ divorce, rights for cohabitants – and measures to help separating couples reach agreement out of court.

As a former national chair of Resolution – which represents 6.500 lawyers and professionals – I read with interest the wide sweeping changes being recommended to the family justice system in the following six key areas:

  1. Protect vulnerable people going through separation
  2. Introduce measures to help separating people reach agreements out of court
  3. Introduce a Parenting Charter to help parents understand their responsibilities when they separate
  4. Allow people to divorce without blame
  5. Help people understand how their divorce will affect their future finances
  6. Provide at least basic legal rights for couples who live together if they separate

With cohabitants continuing to constitute the fastest growing family type in the UK, Resolution is seeking a legal framework of rights and responsibilities giving couples who live together some legal protection and fair outcomes when they separate – or when one of them dies.

The framework would mean that separating couples who can prove they have been engaged in a committed relationship could also apply for certain financial orders if they separate.

In my view it is vital that these plans come to fruition to prevent cohabiting couples from being stranded in a desert when their relationship breaks down. Jones Myers has been a vociferous campaigner for legislation that supports unmarried couples for many years – and as a firm we encourage all our clients who plan to live together, to take out a cohabitation agreement.

Such an agreement sets out who owns what and in what proportion as well as documents how property, its contents, personal belongings, savings and other assets can be divided should a relationship come to an end. It can also cover how many children will be supported as well as how to deal with bank accounts, debts and joint purchases, such as a car.

We also recommend that cohabiting couples have each written a will – because if one partner dies without leaving one, the other partner could end up with nothing.

Much media attention has focused on Resolution’s proposals to introduce ‘blame free’ divorce. Our current laws stipulate that, unless couples have been living apart for two years, one of them needs to apportion some form of blame – adultery or unreasonable behaviour – before they can divorce.

Resolution’s solution is to introduce a new divorce procedure, where one or both partners can give notice that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. The divorce can then proceed and, after a period of six months, if either or both partners still think they are making the right decision, the divorce is finalised.

The manifesto also urges that separating couples, wherever possible, can resolve their disputes without going to court. It recommends extending the availability of legal aid in cases where people can choose which out of court method – including Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (MIAM’s) which became compulsory in 2014 – will be most suitable for them.

As a trained mediator, I still maintain that the public need to be better informed about the benefits of mediation which is not a soft option. At a time of separation, emotions can run high and for some, the prospect of trying to tackle difficult issues with the person causing them pain is overwhelming, even if a mediator is there to keep the conversation on an even keel.

The remaining points call for clear guidance to ensure those entering the court system are more aware of the potential outcomes and consequences – along with wide-ranging reforms to help couples have more clarity on how divorce affects their future finances.

As a firm whose ethos is to urge our clients to always put the interests of their children first, I welcome Resolution’s plans for a Parenting Charter outlining what children should be able to expect from their parents if they are separating – and what separating parents need to do in the interests of their children.

The manifesto also recommends protecting the vulnerable who are undergoing separation via a form of family law credit – giving those who meet the criteria for legal aid for family mediation to have an initial meeting with a family lawyer to help them gather evidence they need in order to access legal aid, or to discuss their options.

Following the brutal cuts to legal aid two years ago, anything we can do to protect the vulnerable is undoubtedly a step in the right direction

After all, isn’t that the whole point of the legal system?

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