Civil Partnerships for All

Daniel Priestley - Writer and Editor

In the UK currently, opposite-sex couples have the right to marry and have done for many hundreds of years. Same-sex couples have only recently obtained this right in 2014 with the introduction of gay marriage under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which was passed by the coalition government. Previous to this the government attempted to answer the question of same-sex marriage by granting couples the right to form civil partnerships - perceived by some as a halfway house to marriage, but this right was not made available to opposite-sex couples. In this article I will discuss the nature of civil partnerships, the current state of the law and the argument as to why opposite-sex couples should be granted the right to form civil partnerships.

What is a Civil Partnership?

Civil partnerships were created in 2004 under the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 and have been available since 2005 to give same-sex couples similar legal and financial protection to marriage. The forming of a civil partnership is a relatively simple process, you must first give notice of intention to register a civil partnership, complete the relevant identification checks, then sign a document in front of two witnesses and a registrar at least one month later at any registry office. Upon first introduction it was unlawful for Civil Partnership ceremonies to take place within religious venues but this restriction was removed by the Equality Act in 2013. Currently there are many legal advantages of civil partnerships that are only obtainable for opposite-sex couples through marriage. These include:

1) Inheritance Tax - If property is left by a civil partner after they die then you do not have to pay inheritance tax on it, meaning the living civil partner won’t be forced to sell the house to pay the tax requirements.
2) Medical Treatment - A civil partnership guarantees the authority to act as the next of kin for a partner if the hospital is unable to get consent for medical treatment. Without a civil partnership or marriage this is not a guaranteed right.
3) Pension Protection - There are many advantages for protecting pensions if your civil partner dies, for example a civil partner may be able to claim a state retirement pension based on their deceased partner’s national insurance contributions.
4) Mutual Legal Responsibility - If a civil partnership comes to an end, there is a legal responsibility to support one another financially meaning that if, for example, someone has chosen to sacrifice their career to look after children of the couple, assets can be divided at the end of the partnership to take this into account to ensure on separation there is no dramatic loss of quality of life for either party.

These are just some examples of the legal protections that a civil partnership grants to a couple and given that there are 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK who aren’t married, there are clearly many people being ineffectively protected by the law in its current state.

Why Change The Law?

The question of why the law should be changed here immediately leads one to question why opposite-sex couples who want these legal protections don’t just get married and whether or not there is actually any demand for opposite-sex civil partnerships. There is much evidence to suggest that demand is there. For example, since the introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK, same-sex couples are still getting civil partnerships. ONS statistics show that for the last two consecutive years there has been a rise in the number of civil partnerships in the UK with around 900 taking place in 2016 and close to a thousand in 2017. In addition to this many other countries such as South Africa, New Zealand, the Netherlands or the British Territory of the Isle of Man allow civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. In the Netherlands 64,400 marriages and 17,900 civil partnerships took place in 2017 suggesting a large demand for both arrangements. Clearly when presented with the choice between a marriage and a civil partnership some couples naturally opt for the latter. The UK’s marriage rate has been declining steadily now for almost 50 years and we need new solutions for couples who don’t feel that marriage is for them. 130,000 people signed a petition in support of changing the law in the UK.

So it is clear the demand is there, but why don’t people want to get married? These reasons tend to be personal, for example people who have had experiences in bad past marriages that they do not want to repeat. Some are concerned about the cultural baggage that marriage comes with - be it the historical, religious or gendered connotations. Some argue that marriage doesn’t reflect their equal relationship because its roots in traditional husband/wife gender roles. Historically, marriage has reflected the idea that women are viewed as the property of the husband and before that the property of their father - hence the tradition of the father “giving away” their daughter at the wedding. Some couples simply just don’t feel that marriage is right for them as a pair. None of this is arguing that people shouldn’t get married or that we should have a negative opinion of people who have decided marriage is the correct choice for them as a couple. It is ensuring that all couples have the options available to them to formalise their relationship and gain appropriate legal safeguards in the way that best suits their relationship.

It is also notable that there is a further legal problem caused by the unavailability of civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 allows transgender people to change their legal gender however this means that couples initially in a civil partnership must either convert to marriage or dissolve the partnership before they may obtain legal gender recognition as to avoid an opposite sex civil partnership. This is a bizarre problem in the law that can easily be remedied by making this change.

Is The Law Going To Be Changed?

Put simply, yes. Last year the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples is discriminatory and incompatible with the Human Rights Act. The Court explained that:
“This could have been done by abolishing civil partnerships or by instantaneously extending them to different-sex couples… Taking time to evaluate whether to abolish or extend could never amount to a legitimate aim for the continuance of the discrimination”
Prior to this case coming before the Supreme Court, the Conservative MP Tim Loughton  had already expressed support for the change of law and brought a private member’s bill called the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Bill 2017-2019. The Government have since said they will support the bill at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on the 2nd of October 2018. The Bill is now reaching its final stages before being passed in law and civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples are expected to be available some time in April/May of 2019.

Photo Credit - Ben White -


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