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Cohabitation, the Common Law Marriage Myth and Law Reform Report

About the project

Cohabitation is the fastest growing family form in England and Wales. Barlow’s research in 2005 had shown widespread belief in legal rights associated with a notion of ‘common law marriage’ for cohabitants (a term that has wide social usage but no marriage-equivalent legal force).

In 2018, working with the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), Barlow commissioned nationally representative, empirical research to identify public attitudes to mixed-sex civil partnerships and gauge current belief in the ‘common law marriage myth’ to provide a longitudinal picture. The aim was to provide robust evidence to inform Parliamentary debates during 2018/19 on mixed-sex civil partnership (where the government was resisting reform in the courts and Parliament) and wider cohabitation law reform in England and Wales.

This 2018 survey found:

  • strong public support for the introduction of mixed-sex civil partnership with 72% in favour; and
  • significant continuing national confusion over ‘common law marriage’ both in England and Wales and Scotland, down from 51% in 2005 to 47% in 2018, despite public information and campaigns ongoing since 2004

Cited in House of Commons debates, the evidence on public support for extending civil partnerships to mixed-sex couples accelerated the introduction of legislation. The first civil partnership ceremonies for mixed-sex couples occurred at the end of 2019.

The research also highlighted the need to reform cohabitation law. Continued belief in the ‘common law marriage myth’ often leads financially vulnerable partners to fail to protect their financial position during the relationship causing injustices if the relationship breaks down. The research was used in debates in the House of Lords supporting further reform during the passage of the Cohabitation Rights Bill, which is currently before Parliament. It was also used to inform Scotland’s reform of Cohabitation Law.

Research Team

Anne Barlow (University of Exeter)


ESRC IAA Rapid Response Award (2018-2019) (£10,550)