Resolution is the national group of family lawyers who are committed to finding non-adversarial solutions to the issues surrounding marriage and relationship breakdown. They adopt a code of good practice to try to avoid very difficult situations becoming even more emotive and aggressive if inflammatory language is used or too aggressive a stance is taken. In practice this can be very hard to implement but is an important element that family lawyers do not make a difficult situation even worse by the way in which they act for their clients.
One of the roles of Resolution is to campaign on key issues affecting family law across the country. One ongoing campaign is to try to achieve a "no fault divorce" which would not require a husband or a wife to blame the other by using such things as unreasonable behaviour should a marriage breakdown. In 2017 the focus is on the rights (or lack of rights) of unmarried cohabiting couples. The awareness raising week will take place from 27th November to 1st December 2017.
Sadly the urban myth of "common law husbands and wives" continues. Many unmarried couples living together (whether it be opposite or same sex relationships) are completely unaware of their lack of rights arising from their relationship even if they have children. The stark reality can often only be revealed when the relationship breaks down and one party realises they do not have the rights they thought they had. Or on the death of one of the couple.
For many years the possibility of giving limited rights to cohabiting couples has been looked at. There is no consensus as to whether this is fair or if such rights are to be given what those rights should be. Resolution is seeking to draw attention to the lack of rights so that at least those entering into non-married relationships are aware of the situation and in particular can take that into account if they have children or buy property together.
When a couple get married this brings rights and responsibilities including financial ones. If there is a divorce those financial responsibilities have to be considered and dealt with. Most people are fully aware of that although the extent of those responsibilities may sometimes leave those considering a divorce confused especially as the way divorce law is interpreted has changed a lot over the years. However the huge danger with non-married couples is the assumption that rights exist when they do not and then only on the breakdown of the relationship (or the death of one of the couple) when it is too late to remedy the situation does the ignorance of the law when entering into the relationship cause problems. With all relationships (whether married or non-married) people enter into them for romantic and non-financial reasons. That is not the best time to be making business like decisions about long-term financial realities. Likewise when a property is bought very often a couple are building a home and are not even considering the possibility that it may not remain the home for them and any children forever.
How to get the message over to the ever increasing number of cohabiting couples is difficult to do. This is the type of relationship that has seen the biggest increase in numbers over recent years and yet people are still entering into such relationships without a clear knowledge of the lack of rights and that "common law husband and wife" means nothing. Quite where that expression came from nobody knows but it has been incorrectly referred to for decades since non-marriage relationships became more standard and less frowned upon.
Ignorance of the law is no defence. The solution with all such problems is "prevention is better than cure" and just a little forethought when a couple enter into a non-married relationship can solve long-term heartache and huge Solicitors' bills. Parents helping their children financially are increasingly becoming a catalyst for such commercial thinking especially when they do not trust their children in their relationship choices! Helping children get onto the property ladder is now becoming much more normal and essential but the "Bank of Mum and Dad" is often stricter in ensuring that financial contributions are properly recorded by such things as Declarations of Trust when a property is bought in joint names. They are also becoming increasingly the reason why Pre-Nuptial Agreements are entered into prior to marriage or Cohabitation Agreements entered into when living together without which financial support is often denied to children. Whether it is that parents are older and wiser or just have doubts as to the choices their children make remains to be seen but there is clearly a lot of work that needs to be done in raising awareness of the lack of rights that cohabitees have. This applies not just to the awareness raising week but 52 weeks a year.
Commentary by Neale Grearson, Head of Family Department.
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