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Defacto Couples To Be Given Property Rights

Cabinet decided today to back a bill extending existing matrimonial property rights legislation to cover de facto relationships - including those between gay and lesbian couples.

The current Matrimonial Property Act outlines how a married couple's property is divided when they separate, and Parliament is already considering a bill updating it.

Associate Justice Minister Margaret Wilson now proposes to extend the law to cover the rights of couples in defacto relationships and same sex couples.

The changes would make all de-facto couples who lived together for more than 3 years become automatically eligible for a fifty per cent in their property.

The law is expected to affect at least 231,000 people presently living in defacto relationships. Ms Wilson said this afternoon that a publicity campaign was envisaged to accompany the bill which would provide for a transition period to the new provisions which would come into force on 1 July 2001.

The proposal would apply to both gay and straight couples without differentiation. Couples would have the opportunity of “opting out” of the property agreements as couples can at present “opt out” of the provisions in the Matrimonial Property Act by signing a “pre-nuptial” agreement.

The extension will make obsolete a bill currently before the house, which sets out separate property rights for gay and de-facto relationships outside of marital property laws.

Opposition Leader Jenny Shipley has criticised the move to extend the legislation regarding relationship property.

While she agreed the rights de-facto couples and gays should be protected, she said they should be treated differently to those of people who are married.

"There are many views in the community about this issue, and instead of dictating its position to Parliament and New Zealanders, the Government should be prepared to listen," Mrs Shipley said.

"National believes marriage represents a commitment and its sanctity should be recognised in law. “

She quoted a recent Law Commission report on the subject which advocated a separate rights system for de-facto and homosexual couples so as not to cause, “understandable considerable offence.”

However gay rights advocates and property law advocates for same sex couples have welcomed the move saying an overhaul of marital law was overdue. They question the move towards separate legislation as a, “apartheid measure.”

Prime Minister Helen Clark also criticised Mrs. Shipley’s stance saying it was hypocritical for a woman who attended the gay and lesbian Hero Parade to now be standing up for the views of Christian Heritage Party leader Graham Capill.

The new legislation is likely to be introduced as a Supplementary Order Paper – an amendment to the existing bill in the area – in May.

At a press conference this afternoon the Prime Minister said that voting on the SOP would likely by a conscience issue though she expected widespread support from inside the Labour, Alliance and Green caucuses.

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