The conference focused on whether the existing national family laws adequately reflect the rapidly changing realities of family life. Experts in family law, social sciences and empirical research attended and presented papers on a range of topics which can only be described and enlightening and informative. The topics ranged from children’s rights, divorce and cohabitation laws in various jurisdictions.
The presentation I delivered was titled “Time to jump on the bandwagon? The need for cohabitation laws”. The presentation explored the deficiencies with the current legal framework in protecting unmarried couples on separation. Over the past decade, figures from the Office of National Statistics show that unmarried couple families have more than doubled in number, however, the law does not adequately reflect the realities of the relationships of this fast growing non-traditional family. Unlike married couples who have greater financial protection when the marriage ends or upon the death of a spouse, cohabiting couples have to resort to piecemeal legislation and a legal framework which often produces outcomes of inequity and hardship.
In comparison to other jurisdictions, England and Wales appears to be lagging behind when it comes to providing statutory protection for unmarried couples. In contrast to this position, Scotland provides an alternative approach. The Scottish government acknowledged that there have been major changes in the way families are built and every family is important no matter how it was formed. Essentially, it was important to safeguard the best interests of children; promote and support stable families and update the law to reflect the reality of family life in Scotland today.
The presentation also considered cohabitation agreements/contracts and their advantages and disadvantages. Cohabitation agreements can be perceived as unromantic and cohabitants may find it difficult to discuss entering into one, however, such contracts can provide clarity and certainty. As there has so far been a lack of political will in providing cohabitation laws, perhaps better public education rather than legislation may provide couples with awareness, knowledge and understanding of their rights.
After the presentation, I had the fantastic opportunity of discussing with the other presenters the approaches adopted in Brazil, Italy and France. This enhanced my knowledge within this field and was an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas and consider collaboration in the future.
by Zanele Nyoni – Solicitor and Lecturer in Law