An expert Bristol family lawyer says the rise in cohabitation, which has doubled over the past 15 years, is leading to a rise in complex disputes between unmarried couples who falsely believe the myth that the law will automatically protect them.
The latest figures show that the number of unmarried couples living together has doubled since 1996 to 1.8 million and there are now almost two million children being brought up by unmarried cohabiting parents which is almost double the figure 16 years ago.
Alison Hawes, a specialist family lawyer at Irwin Mitchell’s Bristol office, says unmarried couples face issues that can be more complicated than a divorce when children and property are involved as the law needs updating to reflect their status.
Hawes said: “The statistics show that there has been a massive change in lifestyles and attitudes to relationships over the past 15 years.
“Disputes between couples who have been cohabiting are rising and are becoming more complex as people buy property and bring up children together without marrying. In the same way that pre-nuptial agreements are becoming more popular, unmarried couples should think about cohabitation agreements as it can save a lot of time and heartache should they split in the future.
“One of the problems is that cohabitation laws need updating to clarify the legal status and rights of unmarried couples living together. It is a common myth that people don’t realise there is no such thing in English law as a common law partner. If a relationship breaks down there is very little protection for the weaker partner, typically the woman and often the mother.
“The division of property is based on complex trust principles rather than what is fair and there is no provision in law for any form of maintenance for cohabitants even if they’ve always been supported by the other party.”
The latest official figures also show that the number of same-sex couples living together has increased from just 16,000 to 135,000 since the mid-1990s and that the number of gay couples bringing up children has trebled in the past two years to 12,000.
A recent survey of barristers and solicitors working in the family sector carried out by Irwin Mitchell, which has a network of expert family lawyers across the country, found that 74 per cent felt cohabitation laws needed updating.
Hawes added: “People living together, with or without children, are not currently afforded the same rights as people who have married or have a civil partnership. Many of our clients are astounded when they realise that they have no legal rights against their partner and believe that new laws needs to be established clarifying the legal rights of people co-habiting.”