Making cohabitation legally binding

This article in the Guardian was based on the suggestion by family lawyer Nicholas Wall that co-habiting couples be given legal protection.  Yvonne Roberts goes so far as to say that couples need these rights.

Treating cohabiting couples as legally the same as those that are married seems to take away a number of our personal rights – the right to chose our own partners, to choose when we get married, and choose what kind of relationships we have.

One of the arguments for this is to protect children after a break up.  But children are already the responsibility of both parents – whether married or not, parents are legally required to care for their children.

So who are we trying to protect with this new legislation?  Vulnerable women?

Well, as an unmarried woman, there are lots of ways that I can protect myself.  I can earn my own living, build up my own savings, pay into a pension and ensure that my name is on the mortgage.   I am not vulnerable simply for being a woman.  And I’m not waiting around for my M.R.S. while my boyfriend resists marriage.  We’re a partnership, making decisions together about the way we want to live our lives.

So we’re not talking about all women.  We’re talking about protecting a particular group of vulnerable women, who are in relationships that are in some way abusive – whether this is physical, emotional or financial.  So if we’re talking about victims of domestic violence, lets ensure that we support these women particularly.  Not enact a law that assumes all women are victims.

This law would be such a blunt instrument, that if an abusive partner wanted to they would easily find a way around it.  Whether that’s breaking up for 2 weeks a year, lying on council tax declarations, or keeping a spare bed made up to show the relationship-inspectors.

Which brings me nicely on to the practicalities of this law.  How would it be decided whether I am married or not?   Is it as soon as we live in the same building?  When it’s been one year?  How is it decided whether I’m in a relationship or simply flat-sharing.  Will there be bed checks as well as forms?   Or should I have gotten divorced from my housemate before moving in with my boyfriend?

David Allen Green posted on the New Statesman this week reminding us that marriage is a legal contract with consequences.  So how exactly would a court, or any other branch of state decide for me that I’ve entered a legal contract?  Green suggests that if people were aware of the legal implications of marriage, perhaps less people would be inclined to enter into this state.  And perhaps that’s true.  Perhaps also, if people were universally aware that there is no such thing as a “common law wife”, and co-habiting couples don’t have rights after some vague length of time, they would be more likely to get married.  Either way, I fully support people ensuring that they know their rights, and have taken responsibility for what would happen if their relationship ends by protecting themselves accordingly.

Relationships aren’t all exactly the same.  We all have the right to choose the kind of relationship we want to be in.  And as a society, we have a responsibility to protect vulnerable people – whether they are children or victims of domestic violence.  But lets not try to uphold this responsibility by walking rough shod over our rights.


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