Landmark case prompts call for cohabitee rights

Landmark case prompts call for cohabitee rights

A landmark legal battle over bereavement damages has prompted a call for cohabiting couples to be given the same recognition as married couples.

Jakki Smith, from Lancashire, took the government to court claiming it had breached her human rights by denying her the damages following the death of John Bulloch, her partner of 16 years.

If someone dies as a result of negligence then their spouse or civil partner is due a fixed sum of £12,980 but any long-term partner is not recognised.

A judge in the Court of Appeal has now agreed with Ms Smith, ruling she was in a "stable and long-term relationship" which was "in every respect equal to a marriage in terms of love, loyalty and commitment".

Helen Morrissey, personal finance specialist at Royal London, said: “The number of couples choosing to cohabit rather than marry has been on the rise for many years and so it is remarkable that the rights of couples who choose to live together are not more widely recognised.

"As it currently stands cohabiting couples can live together for many years and raise children together but if the worst were to happen and one partner dies, the surviving spouse would not be entitled to the same level of benefits as their married counterpart and could suffer extreme financial distress as a result.

"It is about time the rights of cohabiting couples were more widely recognised but until then, those who choose to live together should ensure their wills are kept up to date to reflect their current circumstances."

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the number of cohabiting couple families increased by 30 per cent between 2004 and 2014, making them the fastest growing type of family in the UK.

There were nearly three million opposite sex cohabiting couple families and 84,000 same sex cohabiting couple families in the UK in 2014.

There is no such thing as common law marriage in UK law but 51 per cent of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey thought unmarried couples who live together for some time probably or definitely had a 'common law marriage' which gives them the same legal rights as married couples, despite this is not being legally the case.

The Cohabitation Rights Bill, which would provide certain protections for people who live together as a couple and make provision for the property of deceased persons who are survived by a cohabitant, was introduced as a private members bill to the House of Lords in 2014 but has not since progressed.

Teri Gauge-Klein, associate at Russell-Cooke, said: "Although this decision is a move in the right direction if parliament does not act to change the law this will be a shallow victory. 

"We wholeheartedly support any attempt to correct what is clearly an anomaly law and not reflective of the society we live in."

Ms Smith's legal team had argued the refusal to pay the bereavement damages was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.