On Friday 12th December the Lords gave a Second Reading to Lord Lester and Lord Marks’ Cohabitation Rights Bill that would give many marriage rights and responsibilities to those who cohabited for two years, or who have children. I have blogged about this before (http://lordsoftheblog.net/2012/01/26/against-my-will/, http://lordsoftheblog.net/2011/01/07/love-and-marriage/, and so has Baroness Murphy http://lordsoftheblog.net/2009/03/13/cohabitation-bill/). I first wrote about this in 1978, and I remain of the view that it is a denial of freedom to turn cohabitation into marriage by statute. Research into the growth of cohabitation has shown quite clearly that it is not a happy situation for children because of the very high breakdown rates.
Two new arguments were put forward on Friday by supporters of the Bill. Lord Lester indicated that the government, ie the taxpayer, would be relieved of responsibility for the upkeep of the abandoned and indigent former cohabiting woman if her ex-partner were made to support her, which was his proposal. But since the Bill provides only for court orders relating to lump sums, property and pension-sharing, the poorer claimant would not be able to get ongoing payments, and it is likely that only the better off former cohabitants would be able to avail themselves of the financial settlement provisions.
The other argument was expressed by the former family judge, Lady Butler-Sloss. She described the alleged plight of some Muslim wives in this country, who have married under Sharia law, that is in ceremonies valid only in religious law, and not valid under English law; then if their husband divorces them (presumably again by Sharia law), they are not entitled to claim support under English divorce law because they are not “married”. If there were rights for former cohabitants they would be able to go to court and claim support from their ex-“husbands”. My answer was that 1. we should not make a very significant change to our law to suit people who have avoided our law (I mentioned the rule of law); and 2. it would be better to encourage all Muslims to marry legally by, for example, having a ceremony in the register office as well as the religious ceremony, thereby bringing themselves into line with English law and the protections it affords. The logical answer to Lady Butler-Sloss might be that Muslim religious marriages should be recognised as valid in English law, as are Quaker and Jewish religious marriages.
It is unlikely that the government will allow this Bill to become law, but the issue may well come back for debate. The Labour spokeswoman in the debate, Baroness Thornton, was in favour of it.