Unmarried couples who split up after living together should have legal rights to a possible share of property and money, the country’s most senior family judge has said.
Sir Nicholas Wall, the president of the Family Division, said the current system was unjust and judges should have the discretion to decide on claims.
He said the courts would be more sympathetic to a claim where the couple had been living together for a significant amount of time.
At the moment women often lose out because there is an absence of any law on the division of cohabiting couples’ assets, but new laws could give judges the discretion to award maintenance payments, a lump sum or a share of property.
Sir Nicholas told the Times: “I am in favour of cohabitees having rights because of the injustice of the present situation. Women cohabitees, in particular, are severely disadvantaged by being unable to claim maintenance and having their property rights determined by the conventional laws of trusts.”
He added: “If cohabitation has been short and the contribution minimal, judges would not be sympathetic to a claim.”
In 2007 the Law Commission called for new legal rights for people living together in long-term relationships.
Sir Nicholas, 65, who is married with four children, said he was “disappointed” the Government had not moved to implement the reforms.
A change in the law would have to strike a delicate balance between providing similar protection to cohabiting couples as married couples and stopping short of automatic rights to property and money. A sixth of couples in Britain live together but do not marry, with the number expected to rise.
Sir Nicholas insisted the reform would not undermine the institution of marriage, which he described as “the most stable relationship for bringing up children and for support”.