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‘Common Law Marriage’ myth needs addressing, say MPs

Liberal Democrat Conference debates cohabitants’ rights

A survey of Members of Parliament has revealed that 69% of parliamentarians agree there is a mistaken belief in the existence of "common law marriage" among their constituents, and that 57% believe the law needs to be changed to provide greater protection for unmarried couples upon separation.

The results of the survey, commissioned by Resolution, come as the Liberal Democrats prepare to debate a policy motion on the subject at their annual conference in Glasgow.

Resolution says that cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in the UK, yet there is little or no protection for couples should they separate. In 2012, there were 5.9m people cohabiting in the UK, double the 1996 figure.

Responding to the survey's findings, Steve Kirwan, who leads Resolution's work on cohabitation, said:

"This poll of MPs confirms the findings of a public survey in 2008, in which 51% of respondents believed, incorrectly, that cohabitants had the same rights as married couples.

"And yet the current situation for people who live together in England and Wales, more often than not, creates injustice and hardship.

"This isn't about whether you believe people should be married or not, this is about ensuring that people are aware of their legal rights – and that fact that more than two thirds of MPs identify this as a problem clearly points to the need for reform.

"Despite the myth that there is such a thing as "common law" marriage – which hasn't existed since 1753 – it is possible to live together with someone for decades and even to have children together, and then simply walk away without taking any responsibility for a former partner's welfare. That is simply wrong, it needs to change, and it needs to change now."

Speaking ahead of the debate on the issue at Liberal Democrat Conference, Lord Marks QC, who is moving the motion, said:

"It's fitting that this issue is being debated in Scotland, where of course unmarried couples who live together already have legal rights upon separation. It's high time for the rest of the UK to catch up and bring the law in step with how millions of people are choosing to live their lives."

If agreed by conference, this motion will see cohabitation reform become an official policy of one of the Coalition partners heading into the next election.