Gauteng High Court Judge Colleen Collis said there were many couples who chose to live together rather than get married.
“While many believe in the sanctity of marriage, times have changed and the reality is that some people find themselves living together intending to get married, but they cannot do so due some or another legal bar,” she said.
The RAF is a government-sponsored agency which pays out crash victims and their dependents.
The matter before Judge Collis was Brenda Jacobs’ claim against the fund after her partner, Wesley Stevens, died in September 2015, a month after he was injured in a car crash.
The RAF opposed her application, arguing the couple were not married, questioning whether their relationship was worthy of the law’s protection and whether it did not go “against good morals”.
Jacobs testified that she and Stevens - who was still married to someone else at the time of his death - had been in a relationship for six years.
When they met, he had not been living with his estranged wife and moved in with her and her two minor children.
She said for the duration of their relationship, he had supported them. He had proposed to her, intended to divorce, and the date they had set for the wedding was the day after he died.
Judge Collis said the uncontroverted evidence was Stevens was the sole income earner in the household, that he had promised to marry Jacobs and, throughout their relationship, their respective families had regarded them as “husband and wife”.
“The question then to be asked is whether the facts establish a legally enforceable duty to support arising out of a relationship akin to marriage? I am satisfied that they do. Stevens therefore owed Jacobs a contractual duty to support her….and it follows that the law ought to protect it.”
The judge said while society recognised the sanctity of marriage, the matter did not end there.
“There can be no doubt that our courts also have a duty to develop the common law in accordance with the spirit of the constitution and the Bill of Rights…..judges can and should adapt the law to reflect the changing social, moral and economic fabric of the country,” she said.
“Millions of South Africans live together. This is a simple fact of life. Cohabitation outside a formal marriage and, dare I say it, even when one of the parties is still married, is now widely practiced and accepted.
“In this case, Jacobs has established, as a matter of fact, that she was in a relationship akin to a marriage and it is based on this, that she should be afforded protection as a dependent and she should not be discriminated against.”
How much the RAF will have to pay Jacobs will still have to be determined either through negotiation or at another trial.