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What Is a 'Couple'? Landmark Adoption Ruling Answers the Question

A 'couple' is defined in law as two people living as partners in an enduring family relationship – but what exactly does that mean in a world that has witnessed a metamorphosis in human relationships during the last few decades? The High Court considered that issue in a ground-breaking adoption case.

Two women were in a close relationship for about nine years before they fell out of love and separated. Whilst they were together, they had two children by means of the same sperm donor. Each of them gave physical birth to one of the children. It was their intention that they would each adopt the other's natural child so that they would be legal parents of both of them.

That plan was executed without difficulty in the case of the older child. When it came to the younger child, a girl, however, she had not been adopted prior to the women's separation. The woman who had not given birth to her later applied to adopt her. The success of her application, however, depended on her establishing that she and the birth mother remained a couple – as defined by the Adoption and Children Act 2002 – notwithstanding the end of their loving relationship.

The Court had no doubt that their relationship prior to their separation was exclusive, loving and fully committed. The applicant was just as much the girl's psychological parent as the birth mother. The inseparable children were related through their father and both women, who were on good terms, had continued to play a full and equal part in their lives. The application was strongly supported by the birth mother.

The Court noted that, in the modern world, there are many couples who 'live apart together'. Whilst not cohabiting under the same roof, such couples are nevertheless in enduring family relationships. There was no requirement that intimacy, conjugality or cohabitation form part of such a relationship. The fact that the women were never married or in a civil partnership was not a disqualifying factor.

In finding that the women continued to constitute a couple, the Court ruled that the facts of the case demanded a sensible and liberal approach to interpreting the statutory definition. The Court directed a further hearing at which the girl's welfare and the appropriateness of an adoption order would be considered. Such an outcome would, the Court noted, give the girl the same social and emotional advantages, and status, as her elder brother.