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Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne: The government is right in objecting to giving unmarried couples automatic legal rights

It is reported (£) that the government has decided that unmarried but cohabiting couples should not automatically get legal rights over each other, whether they want it or not. It is rejecting the recommendation of the Law Commission, which is concerned that many unmarried people are losing out financially when their relationship ends.

Many apparantly believe wrongly that they are in a "common law" marriage just by living together for a certain time, and are then left destitute when they separate (although parents are obviously already required to support any children they have, whether conceived inside or outside marriage). This is definitely the right decision by the government.

Automatically giving legal rights to unmarried couples would inevitably undermine marriage to some extent: many long-term couples' main motivation in getting legally married is the rights it gives each other (over inheritance, tax-free asset transfers, child custody and alimony), and the more of those rights they get without getting married, the less reason to marry.

But I have another objection to the blurring of the distinction between being married and not being married: people should have a right NOT to be married. It is incredibly presumptuous of the state to grant one individual legal rights over another individual without their consent, even if they happen to be living together (a sort of forced marriage, one might say). It is a real intrusion by the state into private relationships.

The government should assume that people are adults and can make up their own minds about what sort of relationship they want, not treat them as though they are children unable to take responsibility for it. If a couple want legal rights over each other, they can get married. If they don't, then they shouldn't. Alternatively, you can be really old fashioned and believe that people should marry for love. There's a thought.


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