Hopes pinned on change in law for unmarried couples who break up

August 2012

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 the relationship ended, which ended up in the Supreme Court after a battle through the Scottish courts.   

She had agreed to move in with her partner provided they became engaged.  He then encouraged her to sell her flat.  When they later split up, she claimed for the losses she had suffered and won a ruling of £39,500 in compensation from her former partner, which was mainly made up of the amount by which the flat’s value would have gone up 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 was 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.

But 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 and hopes are being pinned on the change.

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.”

Said Richard Sauvain, family lawyer with Aylesbury-based solicitors Parrott & Coales LLP:  “As English law now stands, a cohabiting partner has no right to a pay-out on breakdown of the relationship unless they can show that they have some sort of ownership right in property owned by the other partner. For example they would have to show that they contributed towards the purchase price or mortgage payments. This can put the weaker member of a couple at a disadvantage.

“With the full backing of the judiciary from this case I would hope that the government will take notice and make a long overdue change in the law “.