Time to deal with the myth of the common law wife

There was a mixed response last week from family law practitioners at Government plans to introduce a partnership registration scheme for same sex couples as announced in the Queen’s Speech, and there were calls for wide-ranging reform of the law for the benefit of all cohabiting couples.

The Civil Partnership Bill will allow gay and lesbian couples to sign an official document at a register office in front of the registrar and two witnesses and they would then acquire a package of rights and responsibilities. The Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) argued that the extension of Civil Partnership was no solution for heterosexual cohabiting couples, where the myth of the common law wife prevailed. A recent British Social Attitudes Survey found that 56 per cent of people wrongly believe that cohabiting couples have the same legal rights as married couples. “They don’t and they are left at the mercy of property law, which is inadequate to deal with these family situations,” commented Jane Craig, chair of the SFLA’s Cohabitation Committee.

The group is calling for a model for reform, which would offer protection to all cohabiting couples where they have been living together for two years or more or where there are children in the family. Craig said: “We are pressing for a new law, separate and distinct from matrimonial legislation, which would allow a court to take into account all the circumstances and do what is fair and reasonable on relationship breakdown. This does not require the acquisition of a special status and will ensure that we have a family legal system which treats all families fairly.”

The SFLA is not calling for the extension of a civil partnership scheme to heterosexual couples. “It would be a complete waste of time,” commented Craig. “Everything that gays and lesbians will have under the Civil Partnership Bill, heterosexuals already have because they could go through the same legal process and get married. But what is needed is protection for those people who don’t protect themselves either through ignorance and who, if they did realise, might chose to get married or register a partnership, or for those couples where one wants to get married and the other doesn’t.”