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Law needs to change on cohabiting rights, says Supreme Court head

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The president of the UK’s supreme court, Baroness Hale, has said unmarried couples should be given greater legal protection when their relationship breaks down.

In an interview in The Times, Baroness Hale said the law needs to address the lack of rights for cohabiting partners, currently around six million people.

She said the present system created injustice and there should be a remedy for unmarried couples in English law, as there is in Scotland when a relationship ends. Scotland introduced basic rights for cohabitees in 2006 for when their relationship breaks down, or when a partner dies.

Baroness Hale said the current system in the UK was “bound to lead to some people not receiving a fair and just allocation of resources when the relationship breaks up”.

A recent survey by family lawyer association Resolution found that millions of unmarried couples living together are unaware that they are at severe financial risk as a result of the current legal system.

It said the number of cohabitees has more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017, but a new ComRes poll showed a significant lack of understanding about the rights available to these couples should their relationship end. Two-thirds of people in cohabiting relationships are unaware that there is no such thing as ‘common-law marriage’, while four in five cohabitants agree that the legal rights of cohabiting couples who separate are unclear.

Resolution chair, Nigel Shepherd, agreed the law needs to change: “Millions of cohabiting couples are unaware that they don’t have automatic claims, for example on the property they live in, if they split up. This makes it less likely they’ll take steps to protect themselves.

“In many cases, this lack of protection affects women more than men, as they are still more likely to have taken time off work to raise children. The government must listen to the public, legal professionals and a growing number of politicians who all agree that we need reform to provide basic rights to cohabiting couples should they separate. Society has changed – it’s time for our laws to catch up.”

Related: See’s Cohabiting couples: how to protect yourselves financially and Pensions ruling could benefit millions of unmarried couples for more information.

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