Sir Vince Cable MP & Elizabeth Cullen: We want to see justice done for the thousands of people who have been cast adrift by cohabiting parents
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable and his constituent Elizabeth Cullen write about their efforts to update the law around cohabiting relationships, which affect as many as 3.3 million in Britain. Elizabeth suffered first hand from the impact of an abusive partner who refused to give financial support to his family.
Theresa May's announcement on allowing opposite sex couples to enter civil partnerships was a welcome reform at Conservative conference. However, it failed to address the issue of couples who want to live together without the formality of marriage or even a civil partnership.
Marriage itself is becoming increasingly unfashionable. There were an estimated 3.3 million people in cohabiting relationships in 2016/17, double the number a decade earlier.
There is no reason to assume that they are more or less happy, or more or less likely to suffer a traumatic relationship breakdown, than those who are married. But when relationships do break down the consequences may be far more serious than for married couples since there is a lack of legal clarity, and clearly defined rights, when it comes to the messy business of dividing up assets and obligations.
This is especially true where children are involved. There are around 2 million single parents who make up a quarter of families with dependent children and many of these originate in broken, unmarried, relationships where the couple previously cohabited.
When relationships break down, common decency and common sense often prevail and separation, while painful, is amicable or at least civil. But there are some cases where cruelty, vindictiveness, revenge or indifference play a large part and one partner (usually, but not always, the woman) is left seriously financially disadvantaged and with children to care for. In the case of cohabiting, unmarried, couples the disadvantage can be compounded by the lack of legal claims that reflect equality between the partners. An unmarried individual has no claim against a former cohabitant for financial assistance and property will revert to a father at the end of a child’s education.
There is, of course, the Child Support Agency (now the Child Maintenance Service), originally set up to make feckless fathers financially responsible for their offspring but applicable to formerly cohabiting as well as other single or married parents. But, even with such sanctions as earnings attachment, two decades of the system have shown that numerous parents manage to hide their income or wealth or manage in other ways to escape their obligations. The majority of single parent families do not receive maintenance payments and 47% of children in single parent families live in relative poverty.
The law has failed to keep up with changing patterns of social behaviour. The classic nuclear family is no longer standard. There is broad acceptance in the legal profession and in government that the law must change to deal with cohabitation. But little has happened. In 2016 legislation was introduced in Scotland for a cohabitant to apply to the court for financial provision. There is no comparable provision in England. Lord Marks has introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the Lords but it will not make progress without active government help.
One of us is a single mother who has experienced at first hand the impact of an abusive partner who has refused to give the financial support to his family that would be demanded by a court of a divorcing husband. The other is her MP. Between us we want to see justice done for the many thousands of people, mainly women, who have been cast adrift by cohabiting parents.