Written evidence from Trevor Gray [HAB0104]
Cohabiting covers a vast spectrum of behaviour from sofa-surfing during temporary loss of accommodation to a couple living together long term, perhaps bringing up children together. It can also encompass related elderly men or women sharing an inherited family home. In view of the array of social arrangements nowadays, defining when two persons who happen to be living together become cohabiting partners is difficult. Although it is possible this could be arranged by a form of legal declaration, that is effectively what formal marriage or civil partnership provide. It ensures a solemn public commitment to each other which balances the rights that each gain from the arrangement. Although cohabiting couples may prefer to shun formal legal declaration such as are made in these ceremonies, it is inappropriate that they gain the rights such as are conferred by these covenants without any legal commitments to each other.
Research has repeatedly shown that a stable family is the best environment for nurturing healthy and well-adjusted children, and incidentally that this is optimum with a father and mother present to provide role models for children (of both sexes). Although family breakdown is becoming regrettably more common, cohabiting couples show even more instability than married couples, with children three and a half times more likely to experience separation if their parents cohabited than if they were married. At least one factor in this is likely to be the insubstantial nature of commitment of cohabiting partners. Giving legal rights to cohabitees may simply encourage cohabitation which may then further increase the toll of family breakdown on society.
Whilst it is true that there does seem to be a widespread erroneous perception that cohabitees have legal rights equivalent to couples in a marriage or civil partnership, the way to deal with this is not to change the law but to educate society. It needs to be made clear that if a couple wish to have the rights and protections of marriage or civil partnership, then they need to make the public commitments to undertake the responsibilities inherent in these arrangements. Simply conferring these rights on cohabitees without any promises on their part undermines these arrangements for society, by removing the value of the commitments and responsibilities undertaken when making their vows.
The preamble to the enquiry emphasised the financial consequences of the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship. These can be devastating for individuals but again can be addressed by education and information, especially with regard to encouraging couples to make a will or addressing inheritance legally and formally which will take into account their particular circumstances rather than a blanket arrangement for all cohabitees that is unlikely to fit all circumstances.