A recently reported Court of Appeal case has highlighted the unsatisfactory state of the property laws in place to deal with the division of property when unmarried couple part company.

The Case involved Pamela Curran aged 55 who was in a cohabiting relationship with Brian Collins for over thirty years until their separation in 2010. During the relationship, Ms Curran claims that she worked very hard in the cattery and kennel business and the property, which were bought in 2007 for a total value of £750,000. At the time of purchase, Mr Collins was registered as the sole legal and beneficial owner. Unfortunately, however, the couple parted ways and Ms Curran left the shared property and found herself virtually penniless and apparently with no alternative but to stay at friend’s property. Ms Curran claimed that she “trusted” Mr Collins and assumed that he would ensure that she would be given “a fair share” of the business and property, however, a dispute arose between Ms Curran and Mr Collins which led her to commence court proceedings.

In the County Court, the Judge ordered that Ms Curran did not have an entitlement in the property or business and dismayed by the decision, Ms Curran took further court action seeking the court’s permission to appeal the County Court decision. Ms Curran was successful in her application and Lord Justice Toulson expressed dissatisfaction with the current property law for cohabiting couples by stating that “The law of property can be harsh on people usually women, in that situation, bluntly, the law remains unfair to people in the applicant’s position, but the judge was constrained to apply the law as it is”. The final appeal hearing date is yet to be confirmed however the Judge’s comments are significant and very welcomed by family lawyers especially in light of the Government’s decision not to reform the law in this area.

The property laws are complex and this case clearly highlights the need for cohabitating couples to protect themselves so as to ensure that they do not suffer the hardships faced by Ms Curran if their relationship ends. There is no such thing as a “common law marriage” and couples purchasing a property together are strongly advised at the time of purchase to properly define and expressly record their respective interests in property, and this can be done by entering into a Declaration of Trust.  There is also a new voluntary Land Registry ‘Form JO’ which can be completed and sent to HM Land Registry in order to register both partners’ interests officially. Of course, for those who have not expressly recorded their interests in property, it is possible to enter into a Cohabitation Agreement which sets out both parties beneficial interests as well addressing other issues e.g. the division of property contents and even the future ownership of family pets.

If you wish to discuss the implications of the recent Judgement or wish to obtain advice on this or any area of family law contact me at kerry.russell@gorvins.com

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