Infantilise seems to be a mot de jour. In this yesterday’s Times, Libby Purves used this very word in an excellent article about whether unmarried couples living together should have legal rights. Due to the Times pay wall, you can’t read it online, but I left my copy on the 8:50 to Charing Cross yesterday and it is probably still there if anyone wants to grab it.
The article followed an intervention by the president of the family division of the British courts, Sir Nicholas Wall, saying that when co-habitees break up, a judge should rule on how property is split between them. Now, my opinion of Sir Nicholas was already in the nuclear bunker below the basement due to his support for continued secrecy in the family courts and several dreadful decisions in adoption cases. I was pleased to note that former Justice Minister Jack Straw shared my opinion and tried, unsuccessfully, to block Sir Nicholas’s appointment to the presidency of the family division.
Sir Nicholas now wants the law to decide what happens when unmarried couples split up. Family lawyers think this is a splendid idea but, of course, they will pick up fats fees as a result. This seems to me to be a classic case of the state sticking its nose in where it has no business. If unmarried couples want to come to a legal arrangement, that should be up to them. Presently, such an arrangement is available. It is called ‘marriage’ and is even available to gay couples (albeit under a different name). Where children are involved, it is quite right that the law steps in to protect their interests when their parents split up. But in the case where a couple move in together, as many do, and then split up a couple of years later without having any children, the arrangement should be private. Another layer of legal bureaucracy is the last thing we need.
The difficulty raised by supporters of Sir Nicholas’s plan is the case of vulnerable women who are allegedly being thrown out onto the street when their lovers tire of them. They also note that people often don’t think through what they are doing. They might move in together, expecting that the arrangement will be for life and thus make no provision for if it doesn’t work out. The law, in other words, must protect people from themselves.
But even if this really is happening, should a law be brought in that applies to all couples when they break up? Surely, as Libby Purves noted in her Times article, people must learn to take responsibility for themselves. A law such as that proposed by Sir Nicholas would further “infantilise” us, in Libby Purves’ words. Whatever the good intentions behind the suggestion, it would have insidious the consequence of making us less responsible for our own actions.
Also, I fear that claiming women are not capable of taking that responsibility is chauvinistic. I am all in favour of ensuring people are aware that what happens when they split up is up to them. It might even be a good idea to make clear that the fabled concept of “common law marriage” does not actually exist. If you want to stay in your partner’s home when they die, you should get that in writing and into their will. And if you want a share of the house you are both living in, that should be documented too. The law should not, in my opinion, step in when people fail to take these elementary precautions.
And just for the record, this is nothing to do with safeguarding the sanctity of marriage. This straw man is regularly erected by proponents of Sir Nicholas’s idea, but is the least of my problems with it. It is a bad idea in its own right and another fine example of how the road to a nanny state is paved with good intentions.
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