Committee (1st Day)

Part of Cohabitation Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 30th April 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 5:30 pm, 30th April 2009

I thank the noble Baroness for her helpful intervention. I wish to explain that by saying some of these things now we will save time on later amendments. In essence I want to say that five years is quite short enough and that Amendment 4 would simply open the door to litigation as soon as two people had lived together. We must realise that cohabitation tends to be a very short event, followed by marriage or separation. There are likely to be children with older couples who are already taken care of under Schedule 1 to the Children Act 1989.

The children's plight was well described by the late family court judge, Mrs Justice Bracewell, in a lecture to Gresham College. She said that cohabitation with different fathers of children does not provide stability, but stability is what I am seeking to promote by having a longer time, as in the first amendment. Stabilility is what children need.

Amendment 4 is in the same group, but it is fundamentally different. It undermines the period of five years. It virtually sweeps that aside and says that for any two people who claim to have lived together for only a short period—note that there is no definition of living together, as the Bill does not even refer to living together in one household—one of them could go to court and say, "Well, this is an exceptional case and I want this right". It would extend the possibilities of harassment and blackmail as pointed out by Professor Cretney. Indeed, any cohabitants excluded under any definition will complain. Amendment 4 might provide something for polygamous wives; though very many of them will be taken care of by the provisions that already exist to give financial provision for "wives" of void marriages. It is not the policy of this country to provide for such situations and there will be extra, expensive litigation over whether or not this new clause, were Amendment 4 to be passed, should apply.

To conclude on this point, most commentators on this have pointed to a 10-year period as the right one. The public, when surveyed, think there is such a thing as common-law marriage. However, when questioned in more detail, it is only when you get to a 10-year period that the public think that there should be rights. When the period of cohabitation in the scenario put to the public is reduced to two years, only 38 per cent of respondents think that a cohabitant should have a right to financial provision on separation. I support this amendment, but would extend the period to five years. However, I put it to the Committee that Amendment 4 is extremely dangerous and expensive in time, in stress, in legal aid and in private funds.