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Judge says law is unfair as woman cohabitant is left penniless

A leading judge has criticised property laws which he says can be unfair to unmarried women when they separate from their partners.

Lord Justice Toulson’s comments came as he heard the case of Pamela Curren who was left destitute after her 30-year relationship with Brian Collins came to an end. The couple ran the Haven Boarding Kennels and Cattery near Ashford in Kent. They lived on the premises. It was bought in Mr Collins’ name for £750,000 in 2007.

Miss Curren said she trusted that her partner would give her a fair share of the property and business if they ever split up, but he did not.

The case first came before Central London County Court last May. Miss Curren told the court she had put a lot of hard work into the business but had nothing to show for it. However, she lost her claim for a share of Mr Collins’ assets. The judge ruled that the couple had not established a business partnership.

Miss Curren has now been granted permission to appeal that decision by the Court of Appeal.

Lord Justice Toulson said that judges “ought not to be affected by human sympathies; they must apply the law as they see it”. However, he went on to add that it “was extremely difficult not to be affected by a sense that the appellant (Miss Curren) has, in truth, been treated unfairly.

“She describes herself as a nobody, but with a profound sense that what’s happened was not just. She says she worked really hard at the kennels and got nothing for it.

“Sadly, she found herself in the classic position of a woman jilted in her early fifties, having very much made her life with the respondent for over 30 years. The law of property can be harsh on people, usually women, in that situation.

“Bluntly, the law remains unfair to people in the appellant’s position, but the judge was constrained to apply the law as it is.”

Miss Curren can now appeal against the County Court ruling but, of course, it is uncertain whether she will succeed in getting the decision overturned.

Sadly, cases like that of Miss Curren are not uncommon. Many cohabiting couples believe they have the same legal rights as married couples but this is not the case. In fact, cohabitants have very few legal rights and so are vulnerable if their relationship breaks down.

It is possible for cohabiting couples to protect their interests by drawing up cohabitation or living together agreements which set out in advance how their assets should be divided if they ever separate.

Many couples say their relationship actually improves once it has been put on a firm legal footing with each partner knowing their interests are properly protected.

Please contact us if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of family law.