Unmarried partners to now enjoy more legal rights
- “A 20-year-old omission corrected” – AG Nandlall
By Gary Eleazar
The National Assembly has, according to Minister of Legal Affairs and Attorney General Anil Nandlall, corrected a 20-year-old omission which has seen thousands of Guyanese being discredited as a result of their legal standing.
He was speaking to the amendments which seek to give more legal rights to spouses and children of common law unions.
Nandlall, in successfully piloting the piece of legislation, reminded that common law unions have been in existence from since the dawn of time, “and for those that believe, reaches as far back as the Garden of Eden”.
The Attorney General (AG) impressed on the House the fact that Guyana has inherited its legal system from England which was heavily influenced by the Church.
As a result of the Church’s clout over the British legal system, recognition to common law unions was never given. Nandall was adamant that the amended law will for the first time in the country’s history accord to a spouse in a common law union, the right to access benefits afforded those that are legally married, under the Marriage Act.
The AG says that while there have been some attempts to recognize, in law, Common Law unions, there was much still left to be desired.
“There was a clear intention not to recognize such a union, the spouses or the product of such unions,” said Nandlall, speaking to the history of the matter and pointing to pieces of legislation such as the Bastardy Act.
That legislation had defined children outside of wedlock as illegitimate, and as such the same benefits did not apply.
The status quo in relation to the legal status of spouses or children in a common law union denied benefits such as access to assets of a father or mother that had died during the course of a union.
Nandlall said that it was left up to the innovation of judges to use principles to pacify the harshness of the law that was meted out to spouses and children of a common-law union. He called this a “silent revolution” on their part.
The Attorney General, as did his colleague Parliamentarian, Education Minister Priya Manickchand, in supporting the legal amendments, spoke of religious arrangements in the Guyana context.
This, Manickchand said, has caused very many Guyanese to go though the religious rituals and live their lives believing themselves to be married, only to find out that as a result of failing to abide with the marriage, they don’t have any legal standing as a wife or husband.
A prominent example of this on display would be that of Former President Bharrat Jagdeo and his “wife”, Varshnie Singh.
It was a public spectacle locally when upon their separation it was a found that they were never legally married and as such she was not entitled to the benefits of a legally married woman.
Nandlall was adamant that “this Bill seeks to correct an omission which should have been corrected 20 years ago.”
He said that the piece of legislation has been lauded by women’s groups as a “great victory,” but was adamant that while this is true “confining it to just a victory for women is myopic, because men will equally benefit and so too will the children.”
The Alliance for Change (AFC), while being represented in the House yesterday, did not speak to the amendment and A Partnership for National Unity (APNU)’s James Bond praised the move by the administration.
“It is commendable and the Legal Affairs Ministry should be congratulated on this effort,” said Bond who is himself a practicing lawyer.
Manickhand, who was the only other Government Speaker to the Bill, sought to add to Nandlall’s sentiments, asserting that it must be recognized that the Bill demonstrates the fact that the Government “is friendly to women.”
She quickly expanded saying that the Law “is gender-neutral but we would be burying our heads in the sand if we don’t recognize that women will be the biggest beneficiaries.”
She said that the Constitution of Guyana speaks to Government’s responsibility in ensuring equity is guaranteed to all.
“We have this guarantee in our Supreme Law and yet we had these grave inconsistencies which prove difficult for persons every single day.”
She said that during her time as a practicing lawyer she had gotten firsthand knowledge of the fact that most of the persons who are discredited are those who go to Legal Aid.
Manickchand sought to emphasize that it is not only women that were finding it difficult, but it was “poor women that were suffering.”
The Bill was approved unanimously by the House without amendments and will become Law once assented to by Head of State Donald Ramotar and published in the Official Gazette.