Top Judge: Cohabiting Couples Should Not Have ‘Married Rights’ Because It Sends Wrong Message

Anthony Devlin/PA Wire URN:21012772 (Press Association via AP Images)
Anthony Devlin/PA Wire URN:21012772 (Press Association via AP Images)

Giving cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples is a “lawyer-driven idea” which “gives the impression that marriage doesn’t matter”, a former top family court judge has said. Sir Paul Coleridge, who is a retired High Court judge, made his comments as politicians seek to push a new law through Parliament setting out legal rights over each other’s money and property for unmarried couples.

Sir Paul, who now heads up think tank Marriage Foundation, has said that he used to be in favour of a cohabiting law as he had seen how women could be left penniless after a long term relationship broke down.

Yet he has now been convinced to the contrary, he told the Daily Mail: “I have had a Damascene conversion. I used to be quite in favour of some form of legal protection. But I have drawn away from a cohabitation law. It is a naive, lawyer-driven idea, and some leadership is needed.”

His comments make Sir Paul the first senior judge to come out against the cohabitation laws currently being pushed by politicians including Nick Clegg, ably backed by members of the legal profession. But Sir Paul, who retired in April but still rules on the occasional case, thinks that laws giving right to just one section of the population would be a mistake, as it would lend credibility to the idea that marriage doesn’t matter.

“You have to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “There are nearly two million children of these relationships and they are at a disadvantage because of that. I think that is fully established now. The Government should be unequivocal in its support for marriage. Half of all family litigation is a matter of family breakdown among the unmarried.

“That means 20 percent of the population but 50 percent of family court workload. Can you imagine the effect on the courts if there is legislation to give rights to cohabitees?”

The debate on changing the law had drawn attention away from the pressing need to strengthen marriage, Sir Paul said. He called for more focus to be given to “the terrible problem of family breakdown and the divisions it is creating in society.

“People think marriage is for the likes of them, it’s not for us. This is not helped by people like Nick Clegg and others who give the impression that marriage doesn’t matter and all relationships are the same.”

Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Marks has tabled a Bill in the Lords which would give partners rights to a share of each other’s earnings, property and pensions after they had been living together for two or more years, or had children. However, critics point out that cohabiting relationships typically last only a third as long as the average marriage, a statistic which is being blamed for the rise in single parent families.

Evidence also shows that the children of cohabiting parents are typically less wealthy, less healthy, and less likely to succeed at school. Nearly half of all the babies born last year were to unmarried mothers, according to the Office of National Statistics. Unmarried mothers also had their first child on average four years earlier than their wed counterparts. David Cameron resisted the idea of a cohabitation law shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 2010.

Aside from the implications for families, critics have also said that such a law would provide lucrative earnings for the legal profession. Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, who is Britain’s most senior family law judge, said in October that the lack of legal protection for cohabitees “is an injustice which has been recognised as long as I have been in the law”.