For the first time since records began, in 2021 less than half of babies born in England and Wales were born to married couples. One explanation is that Covid caused many weddings to be postponed – so many of those parents may now be married – but it is likely this trend will continue given how the traditional family unit continues to evolve.
This statistic points to an increase in unmarried cohabiting relationships, i.e. two adults living together without a legal contract. That has potential consequences for the already over-burdened family court system.
With the cost-of-living crisis upon us, households across the country will be bracing for a difficult time ahead. Financial difficulties put pressure on relationships, indicating that more break-ups could be on the horizon. Statistically, unmarried couples are less likely to stay together than married ones, often resulting in disputes about property ownership – an issue which should concern unmarried couples.
Little protection for unmarried couples
There is very little legal protection for unmarried partners who have often spent years living in a home that is held in the sole name of their partner, and they must navigate complex property law and trust principles to obtain any right in property. Recently, there have been calls for law reform, and the parliamentary enquiry on The Rights of Cohabiting Partners in 2021 looked at “what a definition of cohabitation should look like; what legislative changes are needed to better protect cohabitants and their children; the extent to which cohabitants should have the same rights as married and civil partnered couples; and what international examples of cohabitation law reform are useful for the UK context”. Given that there were 3.6 million cohabiting couples in the UK in 2021, this is an issue that continues to have an impact on the family courts, and a change in the law needs to be considered.
Relationship breakdown also impacts on child arrangements. Another statistic from 2021: 54,649 private disputes about child arrangements were dealt with by the family courts in that year. Given the expected rise in the number of relationship breakdowns, many would expect this number to increase for 2022. In his speech at the John Cornwall Lecture this year, the President of the Family Law Division, Sir Andrew MacFarlane, stressed the need to keep these disputes out of court and stated that the MIAM process (the legal requirement where parties engage in mediation before issuing a court application unless they can claim an exemption) should be enforced to ensure that disputes are kept out of the family courts. Time will tell whether Cornwall’s wish will lead to a change in culture.
The law needs to keep with new trends
A greater understanding of mediation, arbitration and other forms of dispute resolution, is essential to make it work. The law needs to change to keep up with our changing needs. For anyone experiencing relationship breakdown, an initial conversation with an experienced family lawyer does not need to be seen as an aggressive step but can be fundamental to understanding the path ahead and can help avoid unnecessary conflict and expensive contested court proceedings.