The legal implications of cohabitation are often poorly understood by those who choose to live together outside of marriage or civil partnership, and the lack of protection for cohabitants often comes as an unpleasant surprise to many, especially when a relationship ends or one of the partners dies.
Given that there are more than three million cohabiting couples in the UK, this lack of awareness produces dozens of court cases annually as long-term cohabitants find they must fight to try to realise their expectations of their legal rights.
However, a recent decision of the Court of Appeal will give some comfort to long-term cohabitants as regards entitlement to bereavement damages. These have always been able to be claimed by spouses and civil partners, but not 'common law' spouses.
The case revolved around the death of a man who had lived with his partner for 16 years. He died as a result of admitted negligence and a successful claim for compensation was made against the NHS trust responsible. The claim was possible because the couple had lived together for more than two years. His partner was not entitled to bereavement damages, however, because they were not married. The Fatal Accidents Act 1976 provides for bereavement damages to be paid to spouses, civil partners and dependants, but excludes in effect cohabitants who are not dependent on their partner.
The woman's claim was made against the Secretary of State for Justice on the ground that the exclusion was discriminatory and a violation of her human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court of Appeal agreed. Cohabitation is a normal form of family life and, indeed, is the fastest growing family type in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics.