Marriage and Cohabitation Rights – Bishop of Sheffield speaks on Bill

On 12th December 2014 the House of Lords debated the Cohabitation Rights Bill, a private member’s bill introduced by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. The Bishop of Sheffield, Rt Rev Steven Croft spoke in the debate, celebrating the commitment made by couples entering marriage or civil partnership and advising caution over conferring similar rights to cohabiting couples in the way the Bill proposes. His speech is reproduced in full below.14.03.27 Bishop of Sheffield

Introducing the debate, Lord Marks set out the rationale for the proposals as follows [extract]:

“More cohabiting couples—about 38% of them—are having children. The trends are clear: people are choosing to live together and often to build families together as an alternative to getting married or entering into civil partnerships. That is a clear life choice that they make, and it is mark of a free society that we accept and indeed embrace our freedom to choose how we live and with whom we live. This Bill is designed to right injustices that have long bedevilled our law and to ensure that people who live together will not be subjected to an unfair and invidious disadvantage by so doing.

There persists widespread confusion among the public about the legal status of cohabitants. In a British Social Attitudes survey in 2006, no less than 58% of respondents thought that cohabiting couples who split up were probably or definitely in the same position as married couples. The myth of the so-called common-law marriage is widespread—but, as your Lordships are well aware, it is just that: a myth, without any foundation in law.”

The Bishop of Sheffield said:

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

From these Benches, we recognise the good intentions of the Bill. We recognise the desires to protect cohabitees in vulnerable situations and to protect children from hardship.

As has been recognised, there are gaps in the law that can lead to significant financial vulnerability or disadvantage when a cohabiting relationship ends, due to either separation or the death of a partner.

However, the Bill goes beyond those provisions and creates something of an opt-in blanket provision for cohabiting couples, with the very low threshold for cohabitation of a continuous period of two years as set out in Clause 2(2)(d).

As we have heard, the institution of marriage is recognised in our nation and throughout the world as the bedrock of family relationships and of our wider society. Marriage brings social and economic benefits beyond the family or couple concerned, as has been described.

Like all clergy, it has been my privilege to preside at a large number of marriages over the years. The intentions of a Christian marriage are set out in the preface to the marriage service. The couple and the congregation are reminded that marriage should not be undertaken carelessly, lightly or selfishly but reverently, responsibly and after serious thought. Before witnesses the couple give their consent and make solemn vows and promises. They exchange rings and sign their names in a register. They are declared to be husband and wife, in a moment of great drama.

Marriage is therefore a public act of commitment, both a private and a public good. Rights and responsibilities are held together. The state offers protection in law to both parties and to their children once that commitment has been made. Civil partnerships offer a similar opportunity for public commitment and legal rights within that relationship. Both lawmakers and the church should be doing more to promote strong, sustainable and resilient marriages. The Church of England has recently played its part through a national weddings project.

One of the key areas for development by all, including government, is better communication by all parties of the legal protections afforded by marriage and civil partnerships, and the lack of rights afforded to those who cohabit. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said, there is widespread confusion. However, the answer to that confusion may be not legislation but education.

One of the dangers of the present proposal is that it creates a quasi-legal matrimonial structure based on an arbitrary length of time of cohabitation—a concept which is itself very hard to define and has all kinds of unforeseen consequences, as outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech.

There are inequities and hardships, particularly for children, which sometimes result from the end of a cohabiting relationship. We urge that these be addressed where necessary on a case-by-case basis rather than through this kind of blanket provision.

After the debate, as is usual practice, the Bill was read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.


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