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Lewis Hastie - Unmarried but committed

December 3, 2017 7:45 PM
By Lewis Hastie in
Lewis Hastie

Lewis Hastie

It's been in the news recently that many cohabiting couples don't realise that they have no legal rights or remedies in the event of a breakup. Earlier in the year, the Court of Appeal rejected Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan when they sought a change in the law to allow heterosexual couples to enter civil partnerships. As a progressive party, believing passionately in the freedom of every individual to live their life as we please, we Liberal Democrats should seriously consider lending our support to cohabitees and to opposite sex couples wanting to enter civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage.

As a married man, stating the case for civil partnerships as an alternative almost feels like cheating. I like many, followed centuries of others in tying the knot with my partner several years ago. But for us, it wasn't about formality and tradition. We did it for ourselves, and for our family and friends, as we wanted a big celebration and to bring people together.

Many people will tell you that when you get married, and your wife has grappled with various government agencies to legitimise a change of surname, you find that nothing has really changed. You just tick a different box on an insurance application, and there's some kind of tax benefit, but essentially the newlyweds carry on living together as they did before. The difference is apparent when things go wrong.

Generally, Britain really does seem slow to accept that marriage is really an exuberant way of making your relationship binding. It sounds awfully technical and unromantic, but in effect a relationship between two consenting adults (or more than two in a minority of cases) is a contract. You might not negotiate it for weeks through expensive lawyers, and sign a 78-page deed full of exclusion clauses and definitions, but the parties involved both benefit and both make whatever sacrifices they are prepared to make. That's what it effectively is - yes, it can be and often is a religious ceremony, but effectively it all arises from two people agreeing to remain together for life. But this is the point a couple must get to in order to benefit from various legal protections.

In the modern age, I would argue strongly that the point at which a relationship becomes "binding" is not when white gold, diamond-bearing rings are slipped onto fingers, but it comes when a couple signs a lease for a rented property, or exchanges contracts on a joint house purchase. When you live together, you share a home, contents, a daily routine and each other's company on a permanent basis. Marriage is, in effect, an optional extra.

Legally, a couple must marry if they want to enjoy the rights and protections afforded by decades of legislation. The Married Women's Property Act, the Matrimonial Causes Act and the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act for example, provide a safety net for any married couple - on death, they will inherit with no restrictions on amount; on separation, they can apply for spousal maintenance; on divorce, a 50/50 split of assets is the starting point; and when it comes to children, it is still the law that a biological father must be married to the mother to have various rights concerning their offspring, unless there has been a formal agreement with the mother or a joint birth registration.

The net effect of this is that couples have to marry to protect themselves, or risk being left out in the cold financially as well as emotionally after a break up. This does neither them, nor the institution of marriage any favours.

Speaking from personal experience, getting married can easily become very expensive. A simple ceremony in the presence of two witnesses, costing a modest registration fee is all it takes. But in reality the wedding business is enormous and the suppliers of products and services which have sprouted from the quirky traditions and superstitions accompanying a wedding will often make a pretty penny because of peer pressure, and (let's be honest) a degree of vanity.

That's not to say that those things aren't good investments. Some of us, myself included, loved the opportunity to stage a monumental celebration for their nearest and dearest. It's always fun dressing smartly, buying your partner a precious gift or two, and of course the romance of proposing (and courage) can never be underestimated.

However it's not for everyone. Without meaning any disrespect to married couples, it is also an uncomfortable truth that no couple should need a wild and glamorous showpiece to prove the affection they feel for another human being. Similarly, jumping through various hoops and signing registers should not have to be a requirement for two or more consenting and already committed adults to formalise their relationship. There are some who argue, with a degree of justification, that civil marriage is outdated and even sexist. The fathers' names and jobs appear on the marriage certificate but nothing is said about the mothers, implying that men are primary providers. The father gives the bride away, feeding into the notion that women need protecting. Does marriage need to be reinvented, or should it remain as it is, but as one of a number of options?

The answer, perhaps, is a bit of both. But the main driver for change is not the potentially out of touch hallmarks of wedding ceremonies, but the resulting legal status of those choosing not to go through them. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan are one of many heterosexual couples who have argued that civil partnerships, which arose in 2004 as a means of allowing same-sex couples to gain legal recognition of their relationships (now overtaken by same-sex marriages), should apply to heterosexual couples also. It would give them rights and legal recognition, but enable them to avoid succumbing to the social pressure of marrying. This, in my view, is only the first step.

Civil partnerships still involve a degree of formality that some couples either don't want, or don't get round to. Say for example you have committed to your beloved by buying or renting a property, and sharing all you own, and you lose your partner, the devastation you then experience would only be compounded by having absolutely no right to anything your late partner owned. This simply is not right.

There have been various reports, white papers and other attempts to give legal rights to cohabitants, all of which have crashed and burned. The innate fear of discrediting marriage, and of opening the floodgates to spurious claims between separating couples, has always been a psychological barrier amongst MPs and Lords. However all this has done is to create resentment towards the institution of marriage and leave those outside its remit with a sour taste, as though the state and society doesn't value their relationship as highly. Some more socially conservative voices point to the sanctity of marriage, and the commitment it entails but frankly, whether we want to accept it or not, around 50% of marriages end in divorce and regrettably infidelity is just as common to married couples as it is to non-married couples.

Marriage should always be a positive choice, pursued for romance rather than for legal protection. Legal protection should happen automatically as a means of protection those who need it, rather than just helping those who sign up to it. Let's extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, but let's also grant equal rights to all couples who jointly sign up to a mortgage. Some would say that buying a house is not determinative in itself, and that is why there should be an "opt out" system, equivalent to a pre-nuptial arrangement.

The law is still several decades behind the times, and it's time to ditch something old for something new. Keep marriage as it is, by all means. Reform it if we can. But don't make it the be-all and end-all for couples, whatever their orientation or circumstances. Let's make a positive difference.

Lewis Hastie blogs at