Written by Graham Coy, Partner at Wilsons Solicitors
Figures just published by the Office for National Statistics reveal that in 2020 the number of marriages in England and Wales fell by 61%. That is the lowest number of marriages on record since 1838, the year after Queen Victoria came to the Throne.
The marriage rate fell to the lowest on record. To an extent these figures may have been distorted by COVID but the trend is clear. In 2021 for the first time since records began in 1845 more than half of children, 51%, were born to parents who were not married or in a civil partnership.
Society is changing before our eyes. Why is that and how should we react?
Inevitably, the reasons are many and varied. Perhaps most important is how living with a partner no longer attracts the opprobrium it once did, “living in sin” as it was once known. This is linked to the decline in organised religion. In 2020 just 15% of opposite sex marriages were religious ceremonies. Marriage is now seen as a matter of choice.
There are other factors at work as well. The 2021 Census showed that the proportion of people not married had increased to nearly 25% across all age groups. But, couples who are not married face a far greater risk of relationship breakdown. The cost of getting married is regularly seen as prohibitive. The average cost of a wedding in the UK in 2022 was estimated at £18,400. For many this is the size of a deposit to purchase a first home. Buying a home and having children are seen as more important priorities.
Making things worse is the perception that unmarried couples have the same or very similar legal rights as married couples if a relationship breaks down. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no such thing as “common law marriage”. It is a deep-seated myth.
The law provides extensive support and protection for married couples whose relationship breaks down and who need to sort out their finances and provide a secure home for their children. This covers, maintenance, capital and pensions. There is nothing similar which can help those who are not married, especially the weaker financial party.
Lawyers and Judges are forced to rely upon out-dated concepts of trust and property law which are inflexible and ill-suited to such circumstances. Those in Scotland have been afforded some protection but those in England and Wales have been overlooked by successive governments.
Accordingly, an ever-growing number are left to face financial hardship and the law offers them and their children little or no protection. That will not change until legislators accept the need for radical reform and take action.
We have to accept that there have been major societal changes which will not be reversed.
Lawyers have campaigned for decades, without success, for couples who live together and who do not marry to have their relationships legally recognised and be afforded protection when their relationships fail. As a nation we need to have that debate now.
The realistic options are either to equate married and non-married relationships or to provide those who chose not to marry some reduced level of recognition and protection.
As long ago as 2007, The Law Commission, an independent body which advises governments on the need for law reform, put forward detailed proposals after widespread consultation. It found that that a substantial majority of people in England and Wales thought that coupes who were not married should have access to financial protection from the Courts on relationship breakdown. There was cross-party support. Its considered suggestions were rejected by the then government. A blueprint exists. What is preventing it becoming law?
There is strong support from the legal community and cross-party political support. The concept of marriage will not be weakened. Couples can still marry if they wish but we know that fewer do not. They should not be penalised as a result.
The role of the law in a democratic society is to protect its citizens and action is needed now before the current situation worsens.