News & Events
Mixed-sex couples who want to make a public commitment to one another now have another option open to them: new legislation has paved the way for them to enter into a civil partnership from 31 December.
Since the Civil Partnership Act in 2004, civil partnership in England and Wales has been available to same sex couples but not heterosexual couples.
A perceived inequality has existed since 2013, when the ability for same sex couples to marry was legislated for in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act enacted that year. Whilst this allowed same sex couples to choose between either marriage or civil partnership, the same option wasn’t available to heterosexual couples.
Attempts to address this imbalance have been fought on two fronts:
- Rebecca Steinfeld and Tim Keidan tried to register a civil partnership in 2014 and, when their attempts to do so were inevitably refused by the Registrar on the basis that the Civil Partnership Act only applied to same sex couples, they launched a legal challenge. This proceeded all the way to the Supreme Court in June 2018, when that court unanimously agreed that the Government’s refusal to allow different sex couples to enter into a civil partnership was incompatible with human rights law.
- Tim Loughton MP presented a bill to Parliament in 2017 for the introduction of legislation to allow couples of a different sex to enter into a civil partnership. The passage of the bill undoubtedly received a shot in the arm with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Steinfeld/Keidan case in 2018 and, at the Conservative Party conference in October 2018, then PM Theresa May announced that the ban would be removed.
A welcome development
Does this matter? To couples like Rebecca Steinfeld and Tim Keidan, it most certainly does. Whilst they wish to make a public declaration, marriage doesn’t appeal to everyone – something which is evidenced by the dramatic rise in the numbers of couples who have chosen to live together rather than marry over the last 20 years. There are now around 3 million cohabiting couples in the UK, and a Government consultation indicates that around 20% would choose to enter into a civil partnership rather than live together or marry.
Given these statistics, the law change is undoubtedly a welcome development and tackles a modern and perplexing unfairness in the law which has arisen in recent years.
What next for law reform?
With the number of cohabiting couples in the UK expected to continue to increase steeply, and a greater proportion of those couples electing not to either marry or enter into a civil partnership, the next battleground for law reform will be for the introduction of specific legislation for separating unmarried couples, who invariably face huge uncertainty and often great unfairness due to the absence of any such statute. This places cohabitees at a significant disadvantage when compared with their married counterparts.
Governments of all persuasions have been very reluctant to legislate for the benefit of the unmarried over the years – there have been suggestions that Parliament is out of kilter with the way in which couples in the modern era choose to share a relationship – and it will be very interesting to see if the change of attitude towards civil partnerships signals a much wider willingness to recognise an institution which is not marriage.
Richard Hoare is a partner and head of private client services
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