One Former Spouse with No Existing Right to Occupy

Part of Clause 32 – in the House of Commons at 10:45 pm on 17th June 1996.

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Photo of Mrs Diana Maddock Mrs Diana Maddock , Christchurch 10:45 pm, 17th June 1996

The very next part of what I was going to say deals with that issue. Discretion is needed by the courts to deal fairly with cohabitees on the basis of the nature and length of their relationship. That was present in the original drafting of the Bill, which would have allowed for extremely limited rights of occupation for temporary relief from violence to be granted where the relationship between an applicant and a respondent was recent and unstable. The original Bill provided only limited rights.

The newspapers and other media blew this matter up and misrepresented the facts. I merely wanted to go back to where we were originally, because the newly redrafted clauses discriminate against many common law wives who have had a long-term relationship and who are sometimes legally entitled to an interest in the home in any case. We want to go back to the original drafting of the Bill.

Clauses 33 and 35 limit occupation rights to a maximum period of one year. In certain circumstances—particularly where alternative housing options are poor, or where there is illness—there may be insufficient time in which to find alternative accommodation for a mother and her children. My amendment seeks to delete those clauses, but does not stop the courts saying that the period should be only a short one.

It may help if I explain how clauses 33 and 35 would undermine just and fair resolutions. For example, a woman may have experienced violence after moving in with a common law partner several years ago when he was the original owner or tenant. They may have moved in together, but he may have insisted that the property be put in his name. If there are children of the relationship, the woman will find it harder to leave to escape violence, and she will frequently try hard to make the relationship work, especially for the children. She may also be directly contributing to the rent or the mortgage. She is likely to be contributing to household overheads and she will be very likely to have invested earned income or the value of her unwaged work in the household economy.

A woman in that position may be able to make a legal claim for recognition of her contribution if the relationship breaks down irrevocably, but that may take years and it will not help her with protection from violence in the immediate future. It may well be that her common law partner has refused to marry her, and has refused to put her name on the rent book or the mortgage deeds, precisely because that leaves him with all the financial cards in the relationship and therefore more power and control over the family. We know that that sort of thing happens. Limiting rights of protection from abuse for women in that position is unlikely to create more incentives for such men to marry. That is one of the key points. The current re-drafting of part IV completely fails to address that aspect of domestic violence as it manifests itself in many relationships today.

The Bill purports to be gender neutral, but the example that I have given of a woman in a long-term cohabiting relationship reveals how frequently power and financial advantage within the family are not gender neutral and may provide greater incentives for men not to marry. Women need protection by law from violence. In many cases, commitment to the welfare of the children and the creation of a stable family does exist outside marriage, but the protection of children and of the non-abusing parent, who is often a woman, at risk from violence, should be the paramount consideration.

We have heard people say that passing such an amendment will undermine marriage, but I look at it differently. If we do not pass it, we are saying that people who live together and have children do not have the same responsibilities as married people and that in some ways it is not so bad if they commit violence against the people they live with. We should be saying that, regardless of whether people are married or in a long-term relationship and not officially married, violence is unacceptable and the woman deserves to be protected. It sends a message to men that they cannot avoid their responsibilities to women by not marrying.

I urge the House to support the amendments.