October 21, 2011

Protecting the vulnerable from tempestuous relationships

A recent case of ours involving a vulnerable pensioner – who faces the choice of living out the rest of her days in an emotionally turbulent relationship – reinforces the urgency for legislation to protect co-habiting couples.

In this particular instance the lady in question has put on a brave face and contended with a rollercoaster relationship, dealing with her common law partner’s mood swings for over two decades. However, like many couples who live together and think they share the same rights as married couples, this pensioner was shocked to learn that if she chose to leave she would depart with little more than her suitcase and the clothes she stood up in.

If, however, this lady had been married to her partner for just three years, the courts would have based their decision about ancillary relief (the financial settlement) on the whole 23-year relationship. This situation is of course ridiculous and farcical.

At Jones Myers LLP we are stepping up our campaign urging the government to stop ignoring the plight of cohabitating couples who break up. Partner Peter Jones has written to Jonathan Djanogly, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, and MPs across the region to raise our significant concerns about the lack of Government action.

In the UK there are around 2.3 million couples living together who are unmarried, a figure that is predicted to rise to a quarter of all couples by 2031. Very few of these people understand that, if the relationship comes to an end, they have little or no right to any financial assistance or settlement.

The present Government has rejected recommendations from a Law Commission set up to report on the issue, which put forward a framework for legislation that would protect both parties on separation. The Minister of Justice, Kenneth Clarke MP, has made it clear that he regards mediation as the preferred route for couples when their relationship breaks down.

Two of our partners are trained mediators and we wholly agree that mediation can be of great benefit when those involved have legal rights. However, mediation can only function when there are legal rights upon which to mediate, otherwise the process will be totally ineffective.

Having no legal rights is the lamentable position in which some of the most vulnerable members of society find themselves. The glimmer of hope ignited by the Law Commission’s report has been cruelly extinguished and people like our pensioner client are left with an impossible decision – to suffer in silence or be left with nothing.

Do you agree that cohabitees should be afforded legal rights? Share your thoughts with us below or email us here.