THE BLOG

Once Bitten, Twice Shy: Marriage, Uncertainty and the Divorce Deterrent

28/03/2014 12:07 GMT | Updated 27/05/2014 10:59 BST

It might sound like a contradiction in terms but change is a constant in my work as a family lawyer.

Every day, I am confronted with individuals whose lives are shifting - from being single to becoming a spouse, from married life through divorce and for parents seeing their children every day to a more infrequent basis.

Every so often, material is published which puts our experience in context and illustrates that the themes observed by myself and my colleagues in Slater and Gordon's Family department are truly reflective of a fuller, national pattern.

Such is the case with the latest publication from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on living arrangements in England and Wales.

It confirms how the number of married couples continues to decline while the march of cohabition is unabated.

What is always interesting, however, is when one digs beneath the headline numbers to determine why the shape of the British household is shifting.

Growth among those choosing to live together without marrying is greatest not for the younger age groups, as might possibly be expected, but for those in their forties.

It is perhaps no coincidence that individuals of the same age also account for the largest proportion of divorces.

The combination bears out a common feature of cases which many family lawyers have handled. Whilst life might begin a forty for some, for others it means the end of a marriage, a distressing divorce and a conviction that they won't remarry and suffer the same turmoil again - "once bitten, twice shy", if you will.

They prefer to join the increasing number of people who are perfectly happy to cohabit instead.

In my opinion, that is not just down to the greater social acceptability of households made up of an unmarried couple or the trauma of a break-up.

People believe that current divorce law makes for great uncertainty and can produce results which appear to vary depending on factors such as where they live, something which my colleague Liz Cowell has previously written about on the pages of the Huffington Post.

Having entered their forties only to see their marriages collapse, many men and women pay greater attention to their long-term financial planning. They consider the potential impact which another divorce might have on their assets, including those which they may wish to pass on to their children.

That is why the latest figures from the ONS actually add yet more weight to calls for divorce law to be reformed. Last month, the Law Commission published recommendations for change as a means of providing both clarity and certainty as to how marital assets might be divided or protected in the event of a split.

Of course, there are those who view reform as potentially eroding the institution of marriage. I feel that robust and realistic change may actually make people who have been divorced more willing to try once again to find lasting happiness in marriage.

The ONS has already produced ample evidence to show that there is a significant proportion of the adult population who, for many reasons, choose cohabitation to marriage. Even if divorce reforms do come about, some of that number might still not be persuaded to marry.

That is why reform should not just be limited to those whose choose to recognise their relationships by exchanging rings and vows.

In the 40 years since the current divorce laws were introduced, the make-up of the British family has been transformed, just as the ONS has confirmed anew.

Yet there remains no specific law governing the break-up of unmarried couples. At the moment, such matters are dealt with via the laws of property and trusts. The system is, frankly, out of step with modern reality and can lead to unfair outcomes and individuals being left vulnerable once their partnership ends.

It is not necessary for cohabitees to have parity with divorcing spouses but facing up to the real issues created when couples - married or not - decide that they can no longer live together will help create a measure of security and stability for family life in Britain.