On the 14th of November 2016, Maltese parliament unanimously approved the second reading of the long-awaited Cohabitation Bill. The bill was originally presented in 2012 as a move to safeguard the right of cohabiting partners but it was not seen as pressing priority by previous administrations. In today’s constantly evolving society it is important to acknowledge the fluidity of people’s personal relationships whilst recognising that the decision not to get married or partake in a civil partnership should not negatively impact those individuals, instead there should be legislation in place to protect their interests. Civil liberties minister Helena Dalli added that the law is long overdue and is another step towards building a society that respects all individuals and the choices that they make.
In 2011, the Government census estimated that there were over 4,000 cohabiting couples in Malta which means that upwards of 8,000 individuals have no rights in instances of separation, sickness, or death, leaving them vulnerable and unprotected in the eyes of the law. Whilst not designed to take the place of marriage and the benefits of such a union, the new rights provided for in the Bill seek to give cohabiting couples peace of mind when it comes to the intricate legalities of their relationship.
The Bill provides legislation for three types of cohabitation: de facto cohabitation, contractual cohabitation, and unilaterally-declared cohabitation. Under the proposed law, couples who have been living together for a minimum of two years will be guaranteed basic rights such as the right not to testify in court against their partners, right to remain in the common home should one partner die, and most crucially- right to be considered as the next of kin in the event one individual dies. The second type of cohabitation would require a contract be drawn up by a notary to specify the conditions, duties and rights afforded to each party in the event of separation or death. Like a pre-nuptial agreement, it would outline specific rights and entitlements in the case of a range of situations and can only be entered after meeting the same conditions and criteria as required for marriage or a civil partnership. The third scenario is cohabitation by unilateral declaration and is considered the most controversial of the three proposed laws. This scenario allows for one member of a cohabiting couple to make a declaration that they are cohabiting, by sending a legal letter the other partner. Although it only requires one person to initiate this type of arrangement, the other party will reserve the right to contest unilateral registration and as a concept, it will only be valid for the first 5 years after the introduction of the law. Whilst there are concerns that this option could allow people to be entered into a cohabitation without their knowledge, it is noted that this type of provision is necessary to avoid committing an injustice towards people who have no rights and nothing to legally show for all the time and work they have put into a relationship. Dr Dalli, has reassured parliament that adequate measures will be implemented to stop this option from being abused or used unfairly to the advantage of one party.