So why not just get married?

Yesterday, The Times, covering the Labour conference, reported that Labour intend to create a form of “common-law marriage”. The Times report:

Cohabiting couples have been promised legal rights to each other’s property if they split, under Labour plans to create a form of common-law marriage.

Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney-general, said that women were being “put out on the street” when unmarried couples broke up, and promised to reform laws that gave them few financial rights.

Pledging to end the “injustice”, she said Labour would look at ways to give people property rights when they had been living together for a few years.

All of which I found a bit odd to be honest.

I’m unclear in what way it is an injustice for unmarried couples to have no legal rights when – and hold onto your hats for this one – that is what marriage exists to provide. How can it be deemed an injustice for you not to have the rights that exist in a marriage when you have determined you do not want to get married and have them? If you want the rights, the means of getting them already exists and is freely open to you.

Arguing that it is an “injustice” for unmarried people to have no claims on their partner’s assets and finances because they didn’t want to get married is a bit like me arguing I have no rights in a company I have been working for because I don’t believe in signing contracts. Which is, of course, my prerogative, but I can’t be that surprised when the rights and protections that go along with it suddenly aren’t afforded to me. If you think that is a stupid example, just google Tony Wilson and Factory Records and how that went for them in the early 90s.

The Times go on to report:

About 3.6 million unmarried couples live together, a figure that has more than doubled in the past 25 years. Surveys suggest that almost half of them believe in “common-law marriage”, wrongly assuming that they would have legal rights after a certain amount of time together.

In fact, cohabiting couples have no right to inherit each other’s property or pension in the event of death and have almost no claim on their partner’s property if a relationship breaks down.

This is, of course, the benefit of cohabiting (f that is your penchant). Your assets and good remain your own. You do not have to concern yourself with what may happen down the line. If you do not want this and you want legal protection, that is readily available to you. The answer is to get married.

But it seems Labour are suggesting because people don’t know the law and mistakenly believe it says something it doesn’t, they will change the law to line up with their mistaken beliefs. But wouldn’t an infomercial, or a public awareness campaign, be simpler and easier? If ignorance is the issue, then address the problem. Injustice is not the issue because marriage is freely open. Protecting cohabitating couples isn’t the issue because there is already a solution open to them. It seems ignorance of legal protection is the problem which warrant not a total change in the law but the need to raise awareness of the choices available to people. Marry and get all these legal protections, with all that it entails, or do not and have the freedom to up sticks and go without hassle but without the legal protections afforded by marriage.

Again, The Times report:

Jo Edwards of Resolution, which campaigns for reform of family law, said that Thornberry’s promise was “hugely welcome”, adding that “cohabiting couples currently have little to no legal protection when they separate, with no safety net in place to protect those left financially vulnerable if their relationship ends”.

Which is, strictly speaking, not true. Cohabiting couples have the same safety net available to them as every other couple; namely, marriage. But if they choose not to avail themselves of it, of course there is little to no protection. This is true of any safety net. If I am out of work and need to claim benefits, some means of subsistence exists for me. If I choose not to sign up to claim benefits, perhaps I have some ideological opposition to their existence or something, it would seem an odd reflex to then complain there is no safety net for people like me who have rejected the available means.

It seems we are doing something similar here with cohabitation. Of course, if that is what you want to do and you do not want to get married, that is your right. But you cannot complain there is no safety net for you when you have actively decided not to avail yourself of the one that is already there. It seems to me to be bad practice to retrofit the law to accommodate people who have rejected the available means of getting exactly what they need. People are free to choose to marry or not, cohabit or not, with all the attendant consequences their choice in the matter brings.

Rather than look to protect something that already has available protection, rather than seek to change the law to reflect something that already exists in law, why don’t we just encourage people to get married?