Cohabitation and the law: myths, money and the media
British Social Attitudes
The 2000 British Social Attitudes survey confirmed a growing social acceptance of heterosexual cohabitation as a partnering and parenting choice and identified strong public support for reform of cohabitation law. It also established the existence of a ‘common law marriage’ myth whereby the majority of the public, and cohabitants in particular, falsely believe that cohabiting couples who have lived together for some time have the same legal rights as married couples. Even among those cohabitants who were aware of their vulnerable legal position, it was found that very few had taken appropriate steps to gain or provide legal protection despite, as we found in subsequent research, often having good intentions to do so. These findings prompted widespread media interest and government concern. This led the Department for Constitutional Affairs (now the Ministry of Justice) to fund their 2004 Living Together Campaign, aimed at advising cohabitants about their legal rights and indicating practical steps they could take to gain marriage-like protection where possible. Subsequently, in 2005, with Scotland having already decided to reform the law relating to cohabiting couples (see Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006), the government decided to refer the issue of whether cohabitation law should be reformed to the Law Commission for England and Wales, a decision which sparked further media interest. The attention paid to cohabitation over the last few years makes it worth revisiting the subject, to see whether, and how, behaviour and attitudes are changing. So our first aim in this chapter is to examine the evolving prevalence and role of cohabitation as a relationship form in British society. Our second aim is to establish whether attitudes to cohabitation have changed, and whether legal knowledge and actions have increased following a period of sustained government and media focus. Finally, we consider public beliefs about cohabitants’ legal rights and financial practices. This latter issue is vital, as the courts may now take into account how cohabiting couples manage their money in deciding appropriate legal remedies on separation. Some of our key findings have already informed the deliberations of the Law Commission, due to report to Parliament in 2007, but this is the first full account of our research.
This chapter version has been deposited with the kind permission of Sage. The definitive version of this chapter was published by Sage in the 24th British Social Attitudes Report 2008, by Alison Park, John Curtice, Katarina Thomson, Miranda Phillips, Mark Johnson, Elizabeth Clery. ISBN: 9781412947749. Available at: http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book231969
2007/2008 ed., Vol. 24, Chapter No. 2, pp. 29 - 52
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