Unfortunately the Government still stubbornly refuses to make any provision for freedom of conscience in the Civil Partnership Bill. However, it has sensibly relented a little on the provisions related to cohabiting heterosexual couples.
One of those provisions would force cohabiting couples into a legal relationship after three years together, two if they have a child, unless they signed a legal agreement opting out of such a relationship.
The effect of this would be to force many cohabiting couples into a sort of ‘marriage-lite’. It’s hard to know what the effect of this would have been. Would it encourage them to go the whole hog and get married instead, or would they break up?
However, following a statement from the Irish Farmers’ Association last week about this provision of the Bill the Government has decided to extend the three years to five years.
In our own submission of late 2007 about civil partnerships called ‘Domestic Partnerships: A response to recent proposals on civil union’, we recommended that the three years be extended to somewhere between five and seven years.
Our reasoning was that the vast majority of cohabiting relationships do not last long. By year five most cohabiting couples have either gone their separate ways or got married.
According to British research, only three percent of cohabiting couples are still together after ten years.
According to the one bit of Irish research in this area, three-quarters of Irish cohabiting couples have either split up or married within seven years.
The Government’s proposed amendment, therefore, will have the effect of substantially reducing the number of cohabiting couples affected by this legislation.
The provision to force cohabiting couples into a legal relationship was introduced at the behest of family lawyers who believe that some cohabiting partners find themselves economically vulnerable in these situations after a certain length of time and therefore need financial protection.
There is some strength to this argument which is why the Government proposal makes some sense. However, three years was far too short a period.
By the way, it’s interesting to note how quickly the Government caved in on this point. Perhaps this is because it knew no-one would accuse it of intolerance, or of suffering from some kind of ‘phobia’. No-one has yet invented the slur, ‘cohabitation-phobe’, after all.