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Feedback sought on cohabitation Bill

A public consultation exercise to regulate cohabitation was being carried out independently of the possible introduction of any other law, such as divorce, Social Affairs Committee chairman Edwin Vassallo said.

Mr Vassallo yesterday said the committee was on a fact-finding mission to see what people's needs really were and what had to be covered by the legislation regulating cohabitation.

"We are conducting this exercise with a very open mind and we are not excluding anyone. We want to listen to feedback from everyone, including cohabiting sisters, couples of the same sex and separated people. Our doors are open," he said when contacted.

"We want this consultation exercise to be as wide-ranging as possible so that all aspects would be covered. We are not making any distinctions," he added.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said the government was working on a Bill to regulate cohabitation. This legislation had been promised by the Nationalist Party in the 1998 electoral programme.

Dr Gonzi said it was hoped the Bill would be completed by the end of the year. He said the law would define the responsibilities of cohabiting partners and seek to avoid abuses.

Speaking to The Times yesterday, Mr Vassallo said experts had found that those countries which introduced divorce had seen an increase in cohabitation because divorce impinged on the value of marriage. In Spain, for example, there was a decline in marriage and divorce and an increase in cohabitation.

He said the public consultation was not being done in a vacuum and was not excluding the introduction of any other law. However, cohabitation had to be seen in the context of two other issues being discussed by the committee - fatherlessness and the Family Court's improvement.

He said the committee had last year called on the public for suggestions on what the cohabitation legislation should contain. He said feedback had been "very poor", with only a handful commenting.

Mr Vassallo said among these proposals were suggestions for a central office be set up to register partners cohabiting in the same residence. The registration would be known as civil union.

It was also suggested that registered people would enjoy the same status as married couples in areas such as tax and that people who cohabit would not be considered as living separately.

Moreover, cohabiting couples would be given the right to inheritance from their partners. In this way, wives or husbands would not be entitled to the inheritance, years after separation.

It was suggested that cohabiting partners should also be eligible for a widow's pension once either of them passed away. Widows and widowers of separated spouses would no longer have the right to such a pension once the estranged wife or husband has formed a registered civil union.

Mr Vassallo said another recommendation was the need for a mechanism within the Family Court to regulate separated couples who have entered into civil unions, particularly in areas such as the separation of assets.

Finally, it was also suggested that an authority be set up to decide on the custody of children born during cohabitation, if that union unravelled.

Mr Vassallo said the committee would receive feedback on these suggestions by the end of May, by when it would have concluded the work on the document on the Family Court. He hoped to prepare the draft report on cohabitation by Parliament's summer recess.

The committee is receiving suggestions on socialaffairs.parliament@gov.mt.

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