COHABITING COUPLES are the fastest growing family unit in the State. Latest figures show there was almost a four-fold rise in the number of unmarried couples living together between 1996 and 2006. Yet, this radical social change is not reflected in our family laws. In the eyes of the State, the family unit is still based on marriage. Unmarried couples who have been living together for decades often assume they enjoy some form of legal protection. They do not. The harsh reality is that neither the length of a relationship nor the birth of a child results in any legal rights.
This gap in the law has resulted in many cases of injustice and financial hardship following the death or break-up of a relationship. The Civil Partnership Bill seeks to change this. Under the proposed laws, a “safety net” redress scheme is expected to become law before the summer. It will apply to both opposite sex and same-sex unmarried couples who have been living together for three years, or two years in the case of a cohabiting couple with children. This could force a former cohabitant to pay divorce-style maintenance or give a share of their property to a dependent partner.
But what is most striking about the legislation is the lack of public debate on the proposals. Most attention has focused on plans to introduce civil partnerships for same-sex couples. These are a welcome measure and will finally provide legal recognition for same-sex couples. However, there has been relative silence over the far-reaching provisions in the Bill as far as cohabiting couples are concerned.
Family lawyers have expressed serious concerns over the Bill. They argue that flaws could give rise to unintended consequences and legal liabilities being imposed on a large segment of the population without their realising it. The Minister for Justice has indicated that he is willing to make significant amendments. These include changing the name of the Bill to the Civil Partnership and Cohabitants Bill, to more accurately reflect its contents, and extend the period of cohabitation.
Concerns remain, however. The Bill is set to become law within months. Yet we still have not had a meaningful debate over a law which will affect the lives of at least 120,000 cohabiting couples. Perhaps consideration should be given to proceeding with the Bill’s provisions relating to civil partnerships for gay couples and dealing with cohabitants at another time. If our legislative history has taught us anything, it is that Bills not subjected to proper scrutiny make for bad law.