Press Releases

Family property law: a need for reform? – University of Reading

Release Date : 24 August 2004

a couple arguingDividing finances after a relationship breakdown can be a source of bitter legal wrangles, especially in England and Wales where even married couples have separate property rights. However, a landmark study is now trying to establish whether an alternative system for asset redistribution after a couple break up could work in this country. The academics, from the Universities of Reading and Exeter, hope the results of their work will influence policy-makers in the fields of family and property law, and possibly even lead to reform of the current laws. Professor Elizabeth Cooke and Dr Therese Callus (Reading) and Dr Anne Barlow (Exeter) have received a grant of £91,000 from the Nuffield Foundation to investigate whether the current English and Welsh system of dividing assets could be improved with the inclusion of some aspects of the systems used in certain European countries. "Given the predicted 'Europeanisation' of our family law at some point in the future, we might be forced to adopt European methods for dealing with this legal issue, so it is vital to assess how they might work in England and Wales," said Professor Cooke. "But many would say that there is undoubtedly a need for some reform of our current system anyway. "There are very few set rules in this country for how property is redistributed when a relationship breaks down. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as common-law marriage between unmarried couples, and married couples have no guarantees on how assets will be shared in the event of a divorce. "Because of these legal difficulties, the often painful experience of a break-up can be made even more distressing – and financially expensive – for both parties. The whole area is an unresolved matter of concern for government policy-makers." The researchers will look at the benefits and pitfalls of the 'Community of Property' regimes used in some European countries. Here, marriage or registering a partnership generates a "community" of certain assets belonging to a couple. The community is treated as if owned jointly during marriage/partnership and is split equally on divorce, although this may vary according to the interests of any children involved. The two-year research project will involve interviews with European legal professionals and with married and unmarried couples in England and Wales. "We will not only discover the potential merits of introducing this community regime in England and Wales, but also whether couples would be happy to accept it," said Professor Cooke. "This is timely research that could provide the next step forward in reform of our family and property law." End For media enquiries and to arrange an interview with one of the researchers, please contact Craig Hillsley, the University's press officer. Tel: +44 (0)118 378 7388 E-mail:


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