THE BLOG
01/11/2013 08:54 GMT | Updated 31/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Family Fortunes: A Decade of Change in Britain's Households

As a Family lawyer, it is interesting to take a step back and consider just how dramatically the notion of what constitutes a family has changed during the course of my lifetime.

Whereas a married couple with children used to be considered the norm, recent years have witnessed an indisputable increase in the number of individuals who choose to cohabit instead.

It is a trend underlined once again by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which has just released research showing the degree to which life as an unmarried couple - with or without children - appeals to a growing proportion of Britons.

The ONS reports that whilst the number of married couples has risen by 56,000 in a decade, 700,000 more households are now made up of men and women who have opted to live together but not marry than in 2003.

Such findings build on data issued by the same body earlier this year which demonstrated the effect of cohabitation on the modern family dynamic. The quadrupling of children born to unmarried parents in 30 years may have seemed startling enough to some but an accompanying prediction forced the point home.

Within just four years, the ONS concluded, those children born in England and Wales to married parents will be in the minority.

What is perhaps most interesting to me is not the picture which the ONS presents but how it fits with the legal framework in which I and my colleagues in Pannone's Family department operate.

It can be argued with some justification that the law has failed to keep pace with the rapid speed at which the British family has changed shape.

For better or worse - if you pardon the pun - marriage is no longer seen as important by many people who want to set up home together. The law in England and Wales does not provide a remedy for what happens when and if cohabiting relationships come to an end which is any way comparable with what is in place for failed marriages or civil partnerships.

The situation is put into stark contrast between, say, a couple living in England's northernmost town, Berwick, and their theoretical Celtic counterparts just a few miles away from them across the Scottish border.

Scotland has laws which provide a measure of financial protection when cohabitees go their separate ways but our unmarried couple in Northumberland currently have no such framework.

In what might be thought of as a 'traditional relationship', where the mother either does not work or earns a low income, she is currently at a distinct disadvantage compared to a wife in the same situation. The State may well be asked to pick up the tab for supporting our formerly cohabiting woman.

Child maintenance would be payable for any children which they have until they grow up but their unmarried mother would have no protection at all.

It should be said that there are initiatives afoot to address the iniquity. The Law Commission is expected to publish recommendations to Government ministers in the coming months following a lengthy consultation.

A Liberal Democrat peer and Family QC, Lord Marks, introduced a Private Members' Bill - the Cohabitation Rights Bill - to the House of Lords in early October in order to tackle the myth of the "common-law spouses" and provide some protection when cohabitations end in collapse.

Reform, he argued, was long overdue.

I would add that, given the latest ONS figures, it assumes great urgency to avoid future complications. At the moment, while the shape of the British family continues to change at speed, the law lags behind the way the nation is living.