Civil partnership, domestic abuse and common law marriage: The last week in family law

A mother involved in long-running care proceedings concerning her teenaged son has been spared jail for accepting an invitation to attend a parents’ evening at his school. The court had ordered that the mother should not contact the boy, but there was an exemption in the order to the effect that she could “attend parents’ evening at the request of the school”. The mother received a “generic invite” to the parents’ evening, which she claimed fell within the exemption. The local authority applied to have her committed to prison for breaching the order. However, Mr Justice Hayden declined to make a committal order, saying that the invite had been sent in error. He did, however, order that the clause that allowed the mother to accept invitations from the school be removed.

The Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration
Etc) Bill, which provides that opposite sex couples may enter a civil
partnership, has received its second reading in the House of Lords. The Bill
also includes other provisions, including about the registration of the names
of the mother of each party to a marriage or civil partnership, and about the
registration of stillborn deaths. The Bill will now proceed to the committee
stage in the House of Lords.

The government has unveiled what it calls “the most
comprehensive package ever to tackle domestic abuse.” The draft Domestic Abuse
Bill, published on Monday, is aimed at supporting victims and their families
and pursuing offenders. If passed, new legislation will introduce the first
ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse to specifically include
economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse. This, says
the government, will enable everyone, including victims themselves, to
understand what constitutes abuse and will encourage more victims to come
forward. The legislation will also establish a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to
drive the response to domestic abuse issues, introduce new Domestic Abuse
Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to further protect
victims and place restrictions on the actions of offenders, and prohibit the
cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts. Commenting
upon the Bill Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, Victoria
Atkins said: “I have heard absolutely heart-breaking accounts of victims whose
lives have been ripped apart because of physical, emotional or economic abuse
they have suffered by someone close to them. The draft Domestic Abuse Bill
recognises the complex nature of these horrific crimes and puts the needs of
victims and their families at the forefront. This government is absolutely
committed to shining a light on domestic abuse to ensure this hidden crime does
not remain in the shadows.”

However, the NSPCC says the draft Bill has missed an
opportunity to recognise all children as victims in law. NSPCC head of policy
Almudena Lara claimed that if it were to include under-16s in its statutory
definition, children would be better protected. She said: “By failing to
officially recognise children as victims in law, the government is missing a
crucial chance to give young people an extra layer of protection”. However, the
government says that children under 16 were left out of the definition in order
to underline the legal distinction from child abuse, which is dealt with in
separate legislation.

And finally, almost half of people in England and Wales
mistakenly believe that unmarried couples who live together have a common law
marriage and enjoy the same rights as couples that are legally married,
according to findings from this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey, carried
out by The National Centre for Social Research. The findings reveal that 46% of
us are under the wrong impression that cohabiting couples form a common law
marriage – a figure that remains largely unchanged over the last fourteen years
(47% in 2005), despite a significant increase in the number of cohabiting
couples. In contrast, only 41% of respondents to the survey rightly say
cohabiting couples are not in a common law marriage. Anne Barlow, Professor of
Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter, which commissioned the
survey, says: “Our data clearly show that almost half of us falsely believe
that common law marriage exists in England and Wales when, in reality,
cohabitation grants no general legal status to a couple. Cohabiting couples now
account for the fastest growing type of household and the number of opposite
sex cohabiting couple families with dependent children has more than doubled in
the last decade. Yet whilst people’s attitudes towards marriage and
cohabitation have shifted, policy has failed to keep up with the times. The
result is often severe financial hardship for the more vulnerable party in the
event of separation, such as women who have interrupted their career to raise
children. Therefore, it’s absolutely crucial that we raise awareness of the
difference between cohabitation, civil partnership and marriage and any
differences in rights that come with each.”