The progress of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill through Parliament, with its Second Reading in the House of Commons, should be a cause of celebration amongst Liberal Democrats. As a party we have been, on the whole, united behind these proposals and we should applaud the leadership that Nick Clegg, Lynne Featherstone and, let’s give credit where it is due, David Cameron have demonstrated on this particular issue.
Working in Coalition, Liberal Democrats have introduced legislation which will secure equal marriage in law. I doubt very much whether a single party government, whether Conservative or Labour led, would have dared to introduce similar legislation so quickly.
It is time, however, to start looking at proposals for the future – to reflect modern families as they are – proposals for our next manifesto. Conservative opponents of equal marriage claim they are defending the traditional family structure. The Conservative right again demonstrate how out of touch they are with the realities of life. Whilst the traditional nuclear ‘two point four children’ may be the norm there are increasing varieties of family structure. Families are now a mix of cohabiting parents, stepfamilies, single parent families, families with adopted or foster children, civil partnerships, same sex relationships as well as the traditional nuclear family.
In my legal career, whether in rural Somerset or in inner city London, clients have often presented “complicated” family structures, however, no particular family structure has, in my opinion, been preferable than any other in guaranteeing stability, a decent environment to bring up children or ensuring loving relationships. For far too long politicians have demonised or sought to protect, particularly through the tax system, outdated patriarchal family structures.
A recent case that I dealt with, however, has reminded me of the lack of protection cohabiting couples have in law. A client sadly dying from terminal cancer in hospital realises that he has not put in place a Will providing for his partner of in excess of thirty years. For a variety of reasons they had never got married but their commitment to each other was as enduring, if not more so, than a married couple. Falsely believing, like half of the population, in the concept of ‘common law marriage’ his estate, if the Will had not been put in place, would have passed under the intestacy rules and his partner may have had to bring proceedings to secure her inheritance.
It is estimated that cohabiting families now represent 14% of all families. Pre-marital cohabitation is now often the norm. It is time, therefore, for Liberal Democrats to consider policy to reflect society as it is and ensure cohabiting couples have legal recognition. For a variety of reasons, sometimes the expense of a wedding or the desire to have a pre-marriage trial, couples are deciding to cohabit in increasing numbers.
As a starting point, in a series of consultation papers, the Law Commission have considered bringing cohabitants into the intestacy and succession rules, providing financial remedies when cohabitants separate, and ensuring contracts between cohabitants, setting out how they will share their property in the event of the relationship ends, are legally enforceable. The Ministry of Justice have said the Government does not intend to take forward the Law Commission’s recommendations. Scottish law, however, to a certain extent, recognises cohabiting couples and the courts here are, in piecemeal fashion, developing a body of case law. With the number of cohabiting couples likely to increase the future, it is clear the way we live is changing; our laws need to reflect our lives and Liberal Democrats need to be at the forefront of change.
* Roger Crouch is a solicitor with FMW Law in Hammersmith, a Liberal Democrat member in Twickenham and was the party’s candidate for the 2011 Feltham & Heston by-election.