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Vardags Family Law Essay competition 2023/24 | Omar Elmousa

Omar Elmousa- University of Leicester

Between Tradition and Change: Navigating Cohabitation Law Reform in England and Wales Conservative Legal Landscape


National courts hesitation to reform cohabitation laws is not simply due to a preference for traditional family models, but rather a result of several interconnected factors: a cautious approach by the judiciary, an implicit bias towards marriage, and a reluctance to overstep legislative boundaries. This approach, which appears neutral and respectful of Parliaments role, actually helps maintain an outdated legal system. It gives cohabitation a semi-official status - recognized in society but not fully supported by law. This situation reflects a deeper conflict between modern societal values and a conservative legal framework, where cohabitation is acknowledged but not given full legal protection.

Judicial Caution and Legislative Authority

The UK courts demonstrate a cautious approach in reforming family law, often finding interim solutions within the existing legal framework due to the slow pace of legislative changes. It is noted by Graeme Fraser in the article "Reforming family law: what helps and what hinders?" that "the courts find workarounds in the absence of legislative reform". Additionally, the complexity of the legislative process and the impact of political shifts are highlighted. The Family Law Act 1996, for instance, failed in part due to a lack of continued political support across government changes. Sir James Munby also points out the tendency of judges to make existing legislation work, despite recognizing the need for more comprehensive legal reforms, particularly in addressing the myth of common law marriage.

This evidence underscores the judiciarys role in cautiously navigating the gap between existing laws and evolving societal needs. The courts approach reflects a pragmatic response to the slow-moving legislative process and political uncertainties. By employing workarounds, the judiciary acknowledges the necessity for reform while also respecting the legislative authority and process. However, this also highlights the limitations of judicial actions in effecting significant legal change, especially in areas where societal norms have significantly evolved, such as cohabitation and common law marriage. The judiciarys reliance on existing laws, despite their inadequacies, demonstrates a cautious stance that prioritizes legal stability and procedural respect for legislative processes over rapid legal adaptation to social changes.

Implicit Bias Towards Traditional Marriage

The reluctance of the UK courts to reform cohabitation laws, despite the evident societal shift towards cohabitation, suggests an implicit bias towards traditional marriage. This is exemplified in Stack v Dowden [2007], where cohabitating couples are held to more of an individual-oriented standard. This standard highlights the judiciarys adherence to traditional legal principles that favor marital relationships, even in the face of long-term cohabitation.

Furthermore, the contrast in legislative attitudes towards same-sex marriage and cohabitation law reform is telling. Same-sex marriage legislation passed through parliament with relatively little difficulty, while successive governments remained strongly opposed to cohabitation law reform. This disparity indicates a systemic preference for formalized unions, be they heterosexual or homosexual, over informal cohabiting relationships. Such a stance underscores a traditionalist view that indirectly upholds marriage as the preferred legal and social standard, despite the growing prevalence and societal acceptance of cohabitation. This inherent bias within the legal system not only fails to reflect modern family dynamics but also leaves cohabitants, particularly women and children, vulnerable due to the lack of legal protection in non-marital relationships.

Cohabitation: The Semi-Official Status

The current legal status of cohabitation in England and Wales can be characterized as a semi-official recognition, which inadequately reflects the realities of modern relationships and family structures. Under the existing law, individuals can cohabit for decades, have children together, and yet upon separation, the economically stronger party is not obligated to take responsibility for their former partner. This legal framework lacks a comprehensive system of rights and responsibilities for cohabiting couples, leading to unfair outcomes at the time of separation.

Eligibility criteria for cohabitants to apply for financial remedies upon separation, similar to those available in divorces or dissolutions of civil partnerships, are proposed. However, these remedies would be limited compared to those available to married couples or civil partners, thus maintaining a distinction between cohabitation and marriage. Furthermore, cohabitants should have the ability to apply for maintenance for a limited period to adjust to the loss of financial support, aligning their treatment with that of married couples and civil partners in certain aspects, such as tax purposes upon death.

However, the lack of effective remedies for cohabitants, particularly in cases where one partner has undertaken significant caring responsibilities, often leads to a compromised financial position for the economically weaker party, disproportionately affecting women. This is exacerbated by widespread misconceptions about common law marriage, leading those most likely to be affected by the legal gaps to suffer due to their misplaced belief in its existence.

The issue is further complicated in cases where couples have a religious marriage not recognized in England and Wales. These couples are treated as unmarried upon separation, similar to cohabitants, thus lacking substantial legal protection, regardless of the length of their relationship or whether they have children or shared property.

While cohabitants may not have made a public commitment of marriage, this does not negate the commitment in their relationship. The law should reflect societys evolution and protect the vulnerable, recognizing the increasing number of cohabiting couples, many with dependent children. International legal frameworks, such as the opt-out system in Australia, provide examples of more equitable treatment for cohabitants, offering clarity and fairness in property and maintenance entitlements regardless of marital status or gender.

The introduction of new legislation in England and Wales, aligned with practices in other jurisdictions, could lead to fairer outcomes without causing significant controversy. Such legislation would offer a wider range of remedies and apply discretion restricted to claims for compensation rather than needs or sharing available on divorce. The need for reform is further emphasized by the proposal to the Law Commission to review Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989. This review aims to ensure that financial provision for children is equitable, regardless of their parents marital status, addressing the relationship-generated disadvantages and offering a more accessible and fairer system.

To adequately address the needs of children and cohabitants, the court should have the power to make various orders, including payments to third parties, pension sharing orders, and considering resources held in private limited companies. These measures would ensure that the orders are fair and reflect the sacrifices made by parents who have cared for children.

The scale of the problem is significant, with nearly half of the children born to unmarried parents, a trend likely to continue rising. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of cohabiting couple families with dependent children increased substantially, indicating the growing prevalence of cohabitation in society.Therefore, reforming the legal framework to address the inequality of treatment between children of married and unmarried parents is crucial. Such reforms would not only improve outcomes for children but also alleviate child poverty and reduce reliance on social security benefits.

Contemporary Societal Values vs. Legal Conservatism

The discrepancy between contemporary societal values and legal conservatism in England and Wales is starkly evident in the context of cohabitation. Despite the increasing social acceptance of cohabitation as a viable alternative to marriage for partnering and child-bearing, the legal system continues to lag in providing equivalent recognition and protection to cohabitants. This gap is emphasized by the fact that cohabiting relationships, which may be as committed and stable as formalized unions like marriage and civil partnership, still lack legal recognition and thus face unequal treatment under the law.

The challenges in reforming law to provide equitable treatment for cohabitants are significant. For cohabitants, especially women who often take on the role of homemaker and primary caregiver, the lack of legal recognition leaves them economically vulnerable when relationships end. This vulnerability is a direct result of the laws failure to adapt to the changing social norms surrounding commitment and interdependence in relationships.

Moreover, the criteria proposed by the Law Commission for extending legal protection to cohabitants raise normative issues. The focus on commitment and interdependence as bases for legal recognition overlooks the fact that these concepts, while central to marriage, may not align with the dynamics of cohabitation. This raises questions about the appropriateness of using these marriage-like standards to determine the rights of cohabitants and whether such criteria can adequately address the financial hardships they face upon separation.

The laws current approach to cohabitation often requires evidence of "emotional and economic commitment to a joint enterprise," particularly in cases where cohabitants purchase a home together. However, this contrasts sharply with the treatment of married couples, for whom a public declaration of commitment is deemed sufficient, irrespective of the relationships length or the presence of children. The increasing social acceptance of cohabitation, coupled with the support for providing financial relief to cohabitants, underscores the pressing need for legal reform. However, the debate remains on when and how cohabitants should be given legal protection, reflecting the ongoing struggle to reconcile contemporary societal values with a legal system rooted in traditional norms of commitment and family structure.

The Liminal Space of Cohabitation in Law

The liminal space of cohabitation in law in England and Wales reflects a significant gap between societal evolution and legal recognition. Despite a notable increase in cohabitation, as confirmed by statistics from the Office for National Statistics, the legal system continues to provide limited protection for cohabiting couples compared to those who are married or in a civil partnership. This disparity is concerning, especially given the widespread belief in the myth of common law marriage, a misconception held by a significant portion of cohabiting couples. The stark reality is that cohabiting couples in England and Wales do not enjoy the same legal rights as married couples, particularly in matters of separation or inheritance.

In cases of separation or death of a partner, cohabiting couples face financial difficulties and lack of legal rights, which could leave a surviving partner in a precarious position. This legal gap is more pronounced when compared to the legal regimes in Ireland and Scotland, which offer cohabitants more progressive protection. For example, in Ireland, cohabitants can apply for financial maintenance and property orders, reflecting a more equitable treatment of cohabiting relationships. This contrast underscores the need for law reform in England and Wales to better protect cohabitants and align the legal system with current societal norms and practices.

Prospects for Legal Reform

The prospects for legal reform in cohabitation law in England and Wales are influenced by a mix of public perception and legislative challenges. The British Social Attitudes Survey revealed a persistent belief in common law marriage, despite its non-existence, indicating a public misperception about the rights of cohabiting couples. This widespread misunderstanding underscores the necessity for legal reform to protect cohabitants. Despite this, the path to reform is complex. The persistence of the common law marriage myth, rooted in global media influences and societal beliefs, complicates the task of raising public awareness about the lack of legal protections for unmarried couples.

Campaigners argue for automatic legal rights for cohabitants with an opt-out option, a pragmatic approach to aligning law with contemporary family arrangements. This reflects the need for 21st-century laws to govern 21st-century family dynamics, moving beyond mere awareness campaigns to substantive legislative change. This approach aims to provide a general set of protections for cohabitants, recognizing the diversity and complexity of modern relationships and the importance of legal security, especially in the absence of a public commitment like marriage or civil partnership.

The prospects for legal reform in cohabitation law in England and Wales, when compared with other jurisdictions, reveal significant challenges and opportunities. The Law Commissions reviews in England and Wales highlight the need for reform, emphasizing increasing social acceptance of cohabitation as a viable alternative to marriage. However, attempts to extend legal rights to cohabitants are often met with challenges, reflecting the societal and zormative complexities in recognizing non-formalized relationships as equivalent to marriage and civil partnerships.

In contrast, other jurisdictions have adopted more progressive approaches. For instance, in some Canadian provinces, legislation has been introduced to provide cohabitants with rights similar to those of married couples. This includes rights to property division and spousal support upon relationship breakdown, reflecting a more egalitarian approach to family law. These international examples suggest that while England and Wales face challenges in reforming cohabitation law, there are successful models abroad that could be adapted domestically.

The key takeaway is that legal recognition of cohabitation in England and Wales is evolving, influenced by international precedents and shifting societal norms. While reform has been slow, the increasing social acceptance of cohabitation and international trends towards more equitable treatment of cohabitants may eventually lead to significant legal changes in England and Wales.

The Role of the Courts in Social Change (Reforming family law what helps and what doesnt)

In developing an argument about the role of courts in social change, specifically in the context of family law reform, it is clear from the academic article "Reforming Family Law: What Helps and What Hinders?" that courts play a pivotal yet often constrained role. Firstly, courts are instrumental in recognizing and responding to societal changes, as seen with the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. These legislative changes underscore the courts responsiveness to evolving social norms and family structures, aligning legal frameworks with contemporary societal values.

However, the courts often find themselves in a challenging position when existing legislation becomes outdated or fails to reflect current societal realities. The article highlights the courts use of workarounds in the absence of legislative reform, particularly in the realm of financial remedies on divorce. This judicial creativity demonstrates the courts capacity to bring the law into line with modern society, albeit within the confines of existing legislative frameworks.

Furthermore, the article sheds light on the limitations faced by the courts in instigating more profound legal changes. The courts dependency on legislative reform to fully address emerging social issues, such as the rights of cohabiting couples and no-fault divorce, reveals a systemic gap. This gap often leaves the courts unable to fully effectuate the necessary changes that reflect the evolving social landscape. This situation is exemplified by the Owens case, where the courts hands were tied by the limitations of the current divorce law, highlighting the pressing need for legislative intervention.


The comprehensive exploration of the UKs hesitancy in reforming cohabitation laws, as elaborated in your essay, adeptly connects various facets that contribute to this issue, directly supporting the thesis statement. The essay articulates how judicial caution, an implicit bias towards traditional marriage, and the legal systems semi-official recognition of cohabitation, collectively uphold an outdated framework.

Firstly, the judiciarys cautious approach, constrained by slow legislative processes and political fluctuations, underscores their reliance on workarounds within existing laws. This indicates a respect for legislative authority, yet it also highlights the judiciarys limitations in adapting laws to evolving social norms, particularly regarding cohabitation and the myth of common law marriage.

Secondly, the implicit bias towards traditional marriage, evident in historical court decisions and the contrasting legislative attitudes towards same-sex marriage and cohabitation law reform, reveals an entrenched systemic preference for formalized unions. This bias not only fails to reflect modern family dynamics but also leaves cohabitants, especially women and children, vulnerable due to the lack of comprehensive legal protection.

Moreover, the semi-official status of cohabitation, where cohabitants lack similar rights and protections afforded to married couples or civil partners, exemplifies the discrepancy between societal evolution and legal recognition. The absence of effective legal remedies for cohabitants and the perpetuation of the common law marriage myth further exacerbate this issue, underscoring the need for legal reform that aligns with contemporary societal values.


The essay also delves into the broader context of contemporary societal values versus legal conservatism, illustrating the stark disparity between the increasing social acceptance of cohabitation and the legal systems failure to provide equivalent recognition and protection. This conflict is manifested in the criteria proposed for extending legal protection to cohabitants, which raises questions about the appropriateness of applying marriage-like standards to cohabitation.

In conclusion, the essay effectively ties together the various aspects discussed, reinforcing the thesis that the UK courts hesitation to reform cohabitation laws is a complex interplay of judicial caution, implicit bias towards marriage, and a reluctance to overstep legislative boundaries, which collectively contribute to maintaining an outdated legal system. This system, while acknowledging cohabitation, falls short in providing full legal protection, reflecting a deeper conflict between modern societal values and a conservative legal framework.

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  1. Graeme Fraser, Reforming Family Law: What Helps and What Hinders? (2019) Fam Law 6.
  2. Stack v Dowden [2007] 2 AC 432
  3. Kara Swift and Victoria Nottage, Where is the case law on the doctrine of detrimental reliance and to a wider extent how does this impact the need for a change in the law on cohabitation? (2023) Fam Law 61.
  4. Graeme Fraser, Cohabitation Policy: where are we now? (2021) Fam Law 1407.
  5. Wong, Simone. Cohabitation Reform in England and Wales: Equality or Equity. Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 27 (2015): 112.
  6. Caoimhe Sykes, Cohabitation Law: A United Kingdom Only in Name (2019) Fam Law 1379.
  7. Graeme Fraser, Cohabitation Reform: What Recent Statistics Mean for the Cause (2019) Fam Law 717.
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