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The Supreme Court calls for law reform for unmarried couples who break up

23 Aug 2012

Nicola Matthews, Partner in the Family Law team at Hay & Kilner Solicitors, looks at the impact of the recent case of Gow v Grant.

Hopes are being pinned on the Government bowing to pressure to change the law to give greater rights to unmarried couples who break up, after the Supreme Court has added its voice to calls for reform.

The call for change came as judges ruled in the case of Gow v Grant where one partner claimed compensation for financial losses when their relationship ended. This case was taken to the Supreme Court after a battle through the Scottish courts.

Mr Grant encouraged Ms Gow to sell her home and move in with him, and the proceeds of sale of her home were partially used for their living expenses. When they later split up, she claimed for the losses she had suffered and was awarded £39,500 in compensation from Mr Grant. This was mainly made up of the amount by which her property’s value would have increased, if she had not sold it. The case went through the Scottish Courts on appeal, before being referred to the Supreme Court, who decided in her favour.

The decision of the Supreme Court gives the seal of approval to section 28 of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006, which allows the Scottish Courts to order capital payments to be made where one partner has made disproportionate contributions to the household, where this has left them out of pocket, or the other has reaped a bonus. It’s not intended to give the same rights as married couples, but is designed to give the courts power to correct financial imbalances between couples who might have made ‘contributions or sacrifices without counting the cost or bargaining for a return.’

Co-habiting couples in Scotland have had the benefit of section 28 for some years now, and, although the courts have been cautious in interpreting it, this case should lead the way to more widespread claims.

However, the rest of the UK lags behind and although the Law Commission has called for reform, the Government has delayed implementation.  Now the reform has the backing of the highest court in the land, hopes are being pinned on the change being implemented across the rest of the UK.

Lord Hope, giving the judgment of the Supreme Court, said: “The main lesson from this case, as also from the Law Commission research so far, is that a remedy such as this is both practicable and fair. It does not impose upon unmarried couples the responsibilities of marriage but redresses the gains and losses flowing from their relationship. As the researchers comment, ‘The Act has undoubtedly achieved a lot for Scottish cohabitants and their children’. English and Welsh cohabitants and their children deserve no less.”

As English law now stands, a cohabiting partner has no right to compensation for losses suffered on the breakdown of a relationship unless they can show that they have some sort of ownership right in the property owned by the other partner. For example they would have to show that they contributed towards the purchase price or mortgage payments, or that there was an intention that they should receive an interest in the property. This can put the weaker member of a couple at a disadvantage.

Hopefully with the full backing of the judiciary in this case, it is likely we will see a speedier change in the law.

Nicola Matthews is a Law Society Family Law Panel Member, qualified Collaborative Lawyer and local chair of “Resolution”, an association of specialist family lawyers who adopt a firm yet conciliatory approach to family cases. For further information contact Nicola on 0191 232 8345 or email nicola.matthews@hay-kilner.co.uk