11 February 2017

BBC Radio 4 Money Box host, Paul Lewis interviewed Jo Edwards on new cohabitants' case

Jo Edwards, head of Family at Forsters LLP,was interviewed by Paul Lewis about the ramifications of a new Supreme Court case, in the matter of an application by Denise Brewster for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland), in which it was found that a cohabitant had been discriminated against (relative to married couples) by being denied a claim against her deceased partner's pension. 

Jo also discussed wider calls by Resolution, the national family lawyers' organisation which Jo chaired from 2014-2016, for cohabitation reform and the extent to which the law should reflect the rights of cohabitants.

Click here to listen to the interview. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dmgjt

Jo speaks from 20:24 in the show.

Jo was asked whether there would now be pressure to change the rules relating to other types of pension schemes as a result of this ruling:

"This is a really significant ruling for cohabiting couples, although I wish to stress from the outset, not necessarily a step towards equal-rights for cohabitants, which I know many feel strongly against, but an important step nonetheless."

"The wider significance of this case really, is that there could be fresh legal challenges in other areas where there is perceived to be discrimination against cohabiting couples. One obvious example of that is inheritance tax. At the moment inheritance tax laws allow married couples and civil partners an exemption from tax altogether, whereas cohabiting couples are only exempt up to £325k. So, because of this ruling, which effectively says that there has got to be a right to equal treatment under Article 14, those sorts of things arguably could be looked at afresh. Capital gains tax also may come under the same heading."

Jo was asked where she felt pressure on the government to make such changes would come from and whether it might stem from a court case:

"What we are seeing is judges who are having to move very quickly to keep up with society… the number of people cohabiting now is huge, and it’s expected to double by 2032. So judges are making these decisions and trying to keep up with modern society, but the reality is that government really needs to grapple with these issues and look at what the rights for cohabitants should be, both when those relationships end through separation and also when the relationship ends through the death of one of the parties."

Jo was asked about the levels of understanding that many cohabiting couples have regarding their rights and the problems a lack of understanding may be causing:

"At the moment one of the reasons that there are these difficulties is that people in a cohabiting relationship don’t realise until it’s too late, i.e. at the end of the relationship, that they have no rights at all. What Resolution members see around the country is these couples coming to see them and effectively only discovering at that stage that there are no rights at all, and what limited rights there are based on this very complex patchwork of trust law [and] property law [that] really require evidence of a couples intention, which frankly when a relationship transitions into cohabitation people often don’t think about. But because of this ignorance which exists often they simply take no steps to regularise the position."

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