Court to rule on unmarried couples' property rights

Patricia Jones and Leonard Kernott
Image caption The couple broke up in 1993 after sharing a house for eight years and having two children

The Supreme Court is hearing a case which may have a dramatic effect on the property rights of unmarried couples in England and Wales who split up.

Patricia Jones, 56, is challenging a Court of Appeal decision which gave her ex-partner, Leonard Kernott, an equal share of a home they owned.

Their bungalow in Essex was bought in joint names but after separating, Miss Jones paid the mortgage for 13 years.

Lawyers say the judgement could set an important precedent.

It is thought there are more than two million co-habiting couples in England and Wales.

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the judgement, which is not expected to be published for several weeks, was an opportunity for the courts to "even up" rights between unmarried couples and divorcing couples.

"Despite the fact that many unmarried couples still believe in the myth of a common-law marriage, they don't have that kind of protection," he added.

Miss Jones and Mr Kernott began their relationship in 1980 and, five years later, Miss Jones put down capital for the bungalow in Thundersley, Essex. They never married but had two children.

For eight years, they shared the mortgage until Mr Kernott left and bought another property.

Miss Jones stayed at the bungalow for another 13 years, paying off the mortgage alone and covering upkeep costs and paying endowment policy premiums. She did not receive any child maintenance.

In 2006, Mr Kernott demanded his share of the property.

A court ruled he was entitled to 10% and Miss Jones to 90%, but the Court of Appeal said that despite their unequal contributions, he was entitled to half because the property was jointly-held.

Lawyers say that if the couple had been married, a divorce court would have been able to override their property interests to do what was fair, and look at contributions.

For unmarried couples though, the court had to apply strict legal principles, so joint-ownership meant the property was shared 50/50.

Nicholas Francis QC, head of London family law chambers 29 Bedford Row, said the judgement would be a very important precedent and would underline the importance of unmarried couples deciding how much of the home each owns in a declaration of trust.

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