I’m grateful to John Bolch at Family Lore for pointing out that Lord Lester’s Cohabitation Bill has its second reading in the Lords today. Lord Lester’s proposal, supported by Resolution, is aimed at protecting people who’ve lived together with a partner without getting married, and who are in hardship when they split up. The idea is to enable anyone who’s cohabited for two years or who’s cohabited with the mother or father of their child to apply to a court for a financial settlement order. Motherhood and apple pie? I think not. I’m against it.

I’m sure Resolution is right that there are some people – I guess mainly women – who believe cohabitation gives them common law rights in relation to their partners, and who are unfairly left in hardship following a break-up. Perhaps there’s some solution to that difficult problem that I could agree with. But I think Lord Lester’s Bill is a nannying scheme that, far from reflecting the realities of relationships today, tries to limit the freedom of both men and women to choose not to marry.

The reason people cohabit is precisely because they don’t want to create formal, legal ties between them; this law, imposing obligations on cohabitees, will not encourage committed relationships, but deter them. If it’s right that there are lots of men out there refusing to marry so as to avoid responsibility, then surely they’ll simply avoid cohabitation to avoid responsibility instead, won’t they? Or simply leave after 23 months, perhaps (or 17 months, if they’re clever; see below). This Bill will make the decision to cohabit almost as formal and as heavy as the decision to marry – taking away exactly the liberating difference that’s attractive about cohabitation in the first place. I think burdening cohabitation in that way would make Britain feel more like the 1950s again, not like the 21st century. And it would encourage more single occupancy, as those couples who want to retain their freedom ensure they maintain separate addresses. That’s a very bad idea in terms of housing and social policy.

All right, I’m male: perhaps that explains my view. I’m afraid of commitment and responsibility. Well, perhaps. But to me, the assumption that women are financially dependent evokes the past. Of course some women are dependent on their male cohabitants. But then again, quite a few women are better off than the men who live with them but refuse to marry. Why should a woman like that have to support her ex-boyfriend at all once he’s left? It won’t do. I know the Bill provides for opt-out agreements so that couples can agree not to claim against each other. But it’d force them both to go to solicitors first – an incredibly onerous, expensive formality to impose on couples. Again we have the dead hand of the paternalist here, lawyerising what is, and should be, a choice free of such burdensome and bureaucratic consequence. In any case, in Lord Lester’s scheme, the court can tear up the opt-out if it think it’s unfair, or that things have changed since it was signed. What’s an opt-out worth?

Finally, I doubt that the rules determining when cohabitation triggers these new “rights” are what they seem. Look at clause 2(4)(b), which says that in calculating how long a couple have lived together

any one or more periods (not exceeding six months in all) during which the parties ceased living together as a couple is to be disregarded.

The basic principle is supposed to me that there needs to be continuous cohabitation for two years; but that’s not right, in fact, because clause 2(4)(b) means that a split of up to six months doesn’t count. A couple living together for a year, then six months, with six months in between, would qualify for the “protection”, as would a couple who lived together for three six-month periods, broken by two three-month gaps. So it’s not two years continuously at all. In fact, it could simply be 18 months, either broken up as I’ve described, or perhaps in one go. Judges might I suppose read in a requirement that a couple get back together at the end, if a break is to be disregarded – but I see no such provision in the Bill. The Bill brings far more couples into the net than first appears.

By the way, I think if you have a child together, just one day of living together triggers the rights. I agree it’s a good idea for the parents of a child to live together and share financial responsibility; but I doubt Lord Lester’s rules would encourage that. I suspect it’d further deter some young men from wanting to try living with the mother of their child.

I agree there’s a social problem here; but this paternalistic Bill goes too far in trying to solve it, imposing unnecessary burdens on thousands of couples who well understand the freedom involved in living together, and who choose to do so for that very reason. Lord Lester’s one of the most famous human rights lawyers in the country, and should know better than to put forward legislation that’s plainly disproportionate. But this Bill is a sledgehammer aimed at an (admittedly tough) nut. I oppose it, and hope the Lords vote it down.

2009-03-13T16:19:00+00:00Tags: , , |