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What the Relationships Bill should look like

What the Relationships Bill should look like

ACT Justice spokesman Stephen Franks today released a checklist of things he says the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill should, and should not, deal with when it is reported back from the Justice and Electoral Select Committee.

"Because this thing is so dear to the hearts of a powerful faction within Labour, and the bill is highly technical, what it actually does is likely to be buried in top-level spin," Mr Franks said.

"As introduced, it implemented the absurd decision of Labour (and National before them) to punish anyone who treats married couples as if they are different from single people or unmarried couples.

"Labour's Consistency 2000 project team had gone through every law to insert references to de factos everywhere marriage was mentioned.

"The bill therefore insulted the dignity of both New Zealanders who had chosen to marry, and those who had chosen not to. It eliminated a freedom, by saying adults' choices would be irrelevant in law. People intend those choices expressly to decide whether or not they change their legal, as well as social, status.

"What it should have done is simple:

• Respect the considered decisions of competent adults not to marry to retain their independence and separate control of their assets and income.

• Be open about the welfare state's need to save money. Tests for needs based benefits, and means testing must take into account the likelihood that `two can live cheaper than one', and assistance from domestic companions. This argues for abandoning consideration of sex and just focusing inclusively on domestic sharing.

• Provide `next of kin status' for people who have not expressly agreed to be life partners, but should be deemed to be able to `speak for' each other. Examples include brothers or sisters, parents and children who have long lived with each other, deciding what to do on hospital, funeral or even succession arrangements. The same test could cover rules like local government disclosure requirements that treat marital status, as an indication of whether a conflict of interest might arise.

• Protect children's interest in stable relationships, whether married or de facto, by imposing presumptions for income and asset sharing between de facto parents for the children's benefit, and clearly distinguishing these obligations from those in childless relationships.

• Instead of deeming them all equivalent to marriage, recognise that de facto relationships can extend from full and deliberate unconditional sharing of futures and assets, through to ephemeral shack-ups for comfort in the dark while the fun lasts.

• Set out tests for when one member of an unmarried couple will have a claim to the income or assets of the other, for example when one has plainly led the other to impair their position in reliance on an expectation of sharing.

• Recognise the community's interest in promoting stable exclusive companionship, to balance against legal disincentives to people who formally commit to stay together and to look after each other.

• Restore an ability to opt in to commitments the courts would enforce, instead of leaving marriage as the only contract without any sanction even for the most bad faith breach.

• Recommend repeal of the `automatic de facto marriage' effect of changes in 2002 to our matrimonial property law.

• Recommend repeal of the Human Rights Act provisions making it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of marital status.

"This bill was the result of years of work. It should enable this country to recognise a clear principled foundation for family law, and for the circumstances where the state will take account of relationships, and where it will not.

"As introduced, the bill contained nothing of the sort. It has been rushed to ensure it is through before the end of April so that the Civil Union Act is not an empty letter. When reported back it will show what value Labour ministers place on marriage, freedom of choice, the dignity of individuals and relationships, the interests of children, and conceptual integrity in our law," Mr Franks said.

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