Figures from the 2011 census show that for the first time, married and civilly partnered couples now make up under half of all households – 47%  down from 50.9% in 2001. Between 2001 and 2011 the number of married people stayed constant at 21.2 million but the number of single adults rose by more than 3 million to 15.7 million. In the same period, the number of lone parents rose by 400,000. The number of people who had been divorced or had a partnership dissolved rose by 600,000.

There has also been a dramatic rise in one-person households with more than 500,000 created in the decade covered by the census. In sharp contrast, the number of households with married or civilly partnered couples dropped by more than 150,000 to 7.5 million.

In terms of regional differences, the percentage of married people fell by between 4 and 6% in Wales and all England regions except London, where it dropped by 2%. In inner London less than a third of people were married.

Despite the growing social trend towards cohabitation rather than marriage, the current laws do not offer these couples the same protection as married couples upon separation. Resolution, which represents 6,500 family law professionals in England and Wales, have repeated their call for changes to the law so that unmarried couples do not suffer unnecessarily should they separate.

Earlier this year, Baroness Hale, spoke of the disparity between Scottish and English law on cohabitation, in a Supreme Court ruling on Gow v Grant. She highlighted the protection offered to cohabiting couples north of the border, stating “English and Welsh cohabitants and children deserve no less.”

Steve Kirwan, Chair of Resolution’s Cohabitation Committee said:

“The current situation for people who live together in Englandand Wales, more often than not, creates injustice and hardship. Regardless of your views on marriage, our current law fails to reflect the way people are choosing to live their lives. Sadly, children, who were not party to their parents’decision not to marry, can often be affected.

“Despite the “common law” marriage myth, it is possible to live together with someone for decades and even to have children together, and then simply walk away without taking any responsibility for a former partner’s welfare. That is simply wrong.”

Resolution is urging the government to revisit this matter, so that couples in England and Wales can receive similar legal protection to couples inScotland.

Under the current law there are various measures that cohabitants can take to protect their legal position but forward planning is required:

  • Buying a home – get legal advice. You may need a declaration of trust.
  • Renting a home – consider putting both names on the tenancy. If only one is named that person can evict the other if you split up.
  • Draw up a living together agreement - this forms a record of what each party is contributing to the household. If you have it drawn up by a solicitor and independently witnessed it will be legally binding if it produces a fair outcome and neither party was under pressure to sign.  
  • Make a will
  • Children – fathers should take advice on parental responsibility if their name is not on the birth certificate.