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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 March, 2005, 14:13 GMT
Law review for cohabiting couples
A couple
Unmarried couples have little protection on separation or death

Unmarried couples who live together could soon be given the same financial rights as those who are married.

A review by the Law Commission is to look at a number of proposals to protect an estimated two million unmarried couples in England and Wales.

Many of these people do not realise they have no automatic rights on separation or death to maintenance, property or pensions.

Family law group Resolution has said it is delighted the Law Commission is finally going to consider legislation to protect them.

However the Commission's review will be controversial as many groups feel bringing in this kind of legislation would undermine the institution of marriage.

The commission will announce details of its review in the next few days.

Sad cases

One of the things the Commission can consider is an extensive report and proposals from Resolution, formally the Solicitors Family Law Association.

Resolution has been campaigning for change for over five years. One of its lawyers, Jane Craig, explained the need for reform:

The woman is suddenly in a position where she is homeless
Jane Craig, Resolution

"You get these very sad cases where people have lived together for 20 years, the relationship breaks up, the house is say, in the man's name, and the woman is suddenly in a position where she is homeless.

"She has no recourse to maintenance, she has no interest in the property, she can't claim a pension share, and she could be literally out on the street.

"And there is absolutely nothing that the law can do about it."

One of the problems is that many people have a misguided belief that they do have rights.

Ms Craig explained that the notion of common law marriage is a complete myth:

"There is no such thing as common law marriage. You do not acquire rights by living with somebody for two years, or five years or 10 years."

Safety net

Explaining Resolution's proposals Ms Craig said they wanted "safety-net legislation" which did not require the couple to actually do anything to achieve protection.

"People don't take steps to protect themselves, we know that, we know the number of people who do not get around to making a will," she said.

And she added: "Many people just do not understand that they don't have the same rights as married people. And the vulnerable, economically weaker person in that relationship can be left high and dry."

Marriages hold together longer than relationships between co-habiting couples
Valerie Riches, Family and Youth Concern
Resolution has proposed a law which would apply to people who have lived together for two years or more, or had children together.

"There would be a limited right to maintenance of up to three years to enable people to get on their feet again, and the court would be able to make... orders in the same way as it can for divorcing couples, taking into account what is fair between the couple."

Asked if and when change might occur, Ms Craig said:

"I think a change will come. I do not think a change will come until 2007, 2008 at the earliest. But I think a change is going to come. And it is long overdue."

However it will be controversial.

Valerie Riches, founder member of Family and Youth Concern, believes such a change would only serve to downgrade the institution of marriage.

"Marriages hold together longer than relationships between co-habiting couples," she said.

"We do need to bolster the married family because it is the safest environment in which to bring up children."

BBC Radio 4's Money Box was broadcast on Saturday, 19 March, 2005 at 1200 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Sunday, 20 March, at 2102 GMT.

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