Do all families have equal rights in the eyes of the law?

A recent study by Netmums claims there are 35 different family types in the UK. But do all of these enjoy equal legal rights’ Sadly not, says Esha Kalra. Despite the diverse nature of families and marriages in the UK, it can appear the law is still most often concerned with the nuclear family, comprising a married mother and father and their children. It is disappointing to note the disparities in the law between the many different family types and I hope we will soon see this change to better reflect the society in which we live. Families of all types should be aware of the law as it applies to them and take care not to be caught out by these inconsistencies in the legal system. Here I have outlined some information to help families outside of the ‘nuclear’ category to know where they stand. This blog includes some of the most common issues and explains the rights of different family types, along with news of some of the latest legal developments. Cohabiting partners’ There has been a substantial decline in UK marriages over the last 30 years, from 480,285 in 1972 to 270,400 in 2008, according to ONS figures. In contrast, there has been a rise in partners who are choosing to cohabit & an estimated 2.9 million couples in the UK compared to 1.67 million in 1997. UK law has the power to act in divorces between married couples and civil partners, but does not extend equivalent legal support to couples who simply live together. This often leaves former partners locked in disputes over who looks after the children or who keeps jointly owned assets. It is advisable to draw up an official cohabitation agreement with your solicitor, which is like a prenuptial agreement for unmarried couples. Unmarried parents The DCSF has published a consultation that seeks to require unmarried parents to enter their details on the birth register. The draft Registration of Births (Parents Not Married and Not Acting Together) Regulations 2010 has not yet come into force, but if it does it will mean the father’ name will be registered on the birth certificate. This will give fathers parental responsibility of their child, thus avoiding a separated partner becoming the invisible parent in a child’ life. Section 2 (1) of the Children Act (CA) 1989 treats the married father in the same way as his wife, with the married father gaining automatic parental responsibility for their child. However, unmarried fathers do not automatically acquire this right. Rather, they are required to seek the mother’ agreement, a Court Order, or to have been registered as the father on the child’ birth certificate. The father’ details will only not be entered on the birth register in cases where exceptional circumstances apply. Unmarried step-parents Under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, only a married step-parent is able to obtain Parental Responsibility. If, however, the step-parent is not married to the biological parent, consent will be required from both the biological parents of the child. Failing this, the unmarried step-parent will need to apply to the Court for an Order for parental responsibility. Unmarried partners There is a common misconception amongst unmarried couples that they have equal rights to those of married couples. It often comes as quite a surprise when they are made aware of the reality of the situation. Unlike married couples, unmarried partners have no duty to the other. There is no financial relief, whether they have been together for a year or 10 years. In the event that one partner dies, the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 does allow for the surviving cohabitant to bring a financial claim. This, however, is on the condition that the cohabitation was for a period of two or more years. Civil partnerships Whist civil partnerships give same sex couples the same rights as married couples, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 does not allow any form of religious activity to occur during the process of registering the union. A civil partnership only becomes legal when the registration certificate is signed by both partners. Setfords Solicitors offers free consultations to anyone concerned about legal matters concerning the family. Contact us for more information. Disclaimer: This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. For more information contact Setfords Solicitors.