As a (very extended) footnote to Daniel Hill’s two recent posts proposing the abolition of marriage, here and here, readers may be interested in the House of Commons Library’s helpful briefing paper published in June, “Common law marriage” and cohabitation, on how the law of England and Wales applies to cohabitants. It discusses how the current law affects cohabiting couples in the areas of property rights, housing, domestic violence, inheritance, social security, pensions, taxation, immigration, birth registration and parental responsibility. It also includes information about the number of cohabiting couples, the Law Commission’s – and others’ – proposals for reform and a short summary of the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Primarily, the briefing paper points out that “common law marriage” is not a status in English law – which will not be news to regular readers but which, nevertheless, is a folk-myth that refuses to die. Though cohabitants have a degree of legal protection in several areas, cohabitation gives them no general legal status, unlike marriage and civil partnership – and that is the case no matter how long the couple have lived together and regardless of whether or not they have children together.
Number of cohabiting couples
The Office for National Statistics has published annual data on the composition of families and households living in the UK since 1996. During this period, the number of opposite sex and same sex cohabiting couple families has increased, but trends differ between opposite sex and same sex couple families. The ONS reckons that between 1996 and 2017 the number of opposite sex cohabiting couples more than doubled, from around 1.5 million in 1996 to around 3.2 million in 2017. In 1996, around 10 per cent of all opposite sex couples were cohabiting rather than married; by 2017 it was 20 per cent. Over the same period, the number of same sex families increased from around 16,000 to 101,000 – about half of whom are couples who are neither married nor in a civil partnership.
How does the law treat cohabiting couples?
Crucially, the paper points out that unmarried couples have no guaranteed rights to ownership of each other’s property on relationship breakdown. If a cohabiting couple separate, the courts have no power to override the strict legal ownership of property and divide it as they may do on divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership. In the event of a dispute, the apparent intentions of the parties may be relevant in deciding the proportion of the property owned by each party – but each case is decided on its own facts. Similarly, in the event of intestacy, the surviving partner has no automatic right to inherit any part of the deceased partner’s estate, no matter how long they lived together and even if they had children together. A surviving cohabitant may sometimes make a claim at court under the family provision legislation against his or her partner’s estate if no provision (or inadequate provision) has been made for the survivor either by will or by operation of the intestacy rules – but even in that case, a surviving cohabitant is not treated in exactly the same way as a surviving spouse.
Law Commission proposals for reform
In July 2007, following consultation, the Law Commission published Cohabitation: The Financial Consequences of Relationship Breakdown, in which it recommended the introduction of a new statutory scheme of financial relief on separation based on the contributions made to the relationship by the parties – and available to cohabiting couples who had had a child together or who had lived together for a minimum qualifying period. But nothing happened; and eleven years later, in April 2018, the Government said that it would consider how to proceed in relation to the proposals in the context of any further reforms to the family justice system.
In Intestacy and Family Provision Claims on Death, published in 2011, the Law Commission further recommended that some unmarried partners should have the right to inherit on each other’s death under the intestacy rules without having to go to court: that recommendation has not been implemented.
Scotland and Northern Ireland
The paper notes that, in Scotland, cohabitants may make limited claims against each other either when their relationship breaks down or when a partner dies. In Northern Ireland, cohabitants have legal protection in some areas but, overall, have significantly fewer rights and responsibilities than do married couples and civil partners.
The myth of “common law marriage”
“Irregular” marriage as a recognised legal form persisted in Scotland until marriage “by cohabitation with habit and repute” was finally abolished by the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006; and its abolition did not, in any case, affect the validity of any such subsisting marriages. Rebecca Probert has suggested that the “common law marriage” myth in English law can be traced back to the consistory court judgment of Sir William Scott in Dalrymple v Dalrymple (1811) 2 Hag Con 54; 161 ER 665 and argues that his judgment must be treated with caution. The issue before him had been whether or not the declarations per verba de praesenti made by John Dalrymple and Johanna Gordon had constituted a valid marriage under the law of Scotland – where the relevant events had taken place – and therefore constituted a valid marriage in England. Unfortunately, in his exposition Sir William admitted [161 ER 667] his “inferior qualifications” to decide the matter – so it seems a rather shaky foundation upon which to build an elaborate edifice of informal marriage as a common form that had been brought to an end by the Marriage Act 1753, aka Lord Hardwicke’s Act.
But whatever its origin, “common law marriage” remains an idée fixe that continues to bedevil popular (mis)conceptions in areas such as family law and succession. And the sooner people get it out of their heads, the better.