Today the government has announced that heterosexual couples in England and Wales are to have the right to enter into civil partnerships.
The move, intended to provide greater security for unmarried couples and their families, was announced in a statement by Theresa May made at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham. In the announcement May, who previously, as Home Secretary, supported legislation that created equal marriage, said “this change in the law helps protect the interests of opposite-sex couples who want to commit, want to formalise their relationship, but don’t necessarily want to get married.”
What sparked this development and change in the law?
The decision comes three months after Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, a heterosexual couple, won a legal bid at the Supreme Court to be granted a civil partnership. The couple, who have two young daughters, had been prevented from entering into a Civil Partnership as the Civil Partnership Act 2004 states that only same-sex couples are eligible.
In the landmark Supreme Court ruling it was held that the bar on different-sex couples entering into civil partnerships breached the parties rights under article 14 (the prohibition of discrimination) together with article 8 (the right to respect for private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The court said that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was therefore incompatible with the ECHR and urged parliament to consider addressing the issue.
Today the issue has been addressed and May has confirmed that the law will be changed.
What is the current law on civil partnerships?
Civil partnerships were introduced under the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the first civil partnership ceremonies took place in December 2005.
Before civil partnerships were introduced, there were no legal routes for same-sex couples to formalise their relationships. This meant that no matter how committed a same-sex relationship was, a same-sex couple could never have the same rights as different-sex couples who were married.
The Civil Partnership Act introduced civil partnerships as a way of giving same-sex couples a way to acquire the same or comparable status as a married different-sex couple and have been popular since first introduced.
In August 2018 the Office of National Statistics published data showing an annual increase in the number of civil partnerships in England and Wales of 0.2%. This was the second annual increase in the number of civil partnerships since the introduction of the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, which legalised same sex marriage in England and Wales.
Why do mixed-sex couples want the right to a civil partnership?
There are a range of reasons why people do not want to get married. High on that list, as was the case in the matter of Steinfeld and Keidan, is the feeling among some that marriage as an institution does not reflect equality in a relationship due to its arguably archaic and traditional gender role roots.
There are also practical reasons for why some unmarried heterosexual couples might now want to enter into a civil partnership. There are currently 3.3million co-habiting couples in the UK and this figure is on the rise annually. Many of these couples believe that they are protected under ‘common law marriage’ and possess similar rights and protections enjoyed by married couples. However this is not the case.
Entering into a civil partnership means that couples will be able to enjoy greater protections within their relationship, without having to carry the patriarchal associations of traditional marriage that are becoming more and more unattractive to cohabiting couples.
What has the reaction been?
The reaction to the news this morning has been largely positive, with many pleased that all couples in England and Wales, irrespective of sexual preferences, are to be given the same choices in life. This includes civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell who said the announcement was “wonderful news”.
Martin Loat, chair of the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign, agreed that it was great news and added that “legislation would be fair, popular and promote stable families.” However, he was slightly cautious in his assessment, stating that it was now time to “get on with it”. This cautious approach has been adopted by a number of critics who are concerned that the only thing missing from the news this morning is a timeline.
Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt has promised that the change in the law will happen “as swiftly as possible” but has acknowledged that there are a number of legal issues to consider across pension and family law. Ministers are now said to be in the process of consulting on the technical detail.
What does the future hold?
It is yet to be seen what impact this change in the law will have on couples in England and Wales wanting to make a long-term commitment to each other. Many envisage that the change will lead to an increase in civil partnerships and a decrease in the number of cohabiting couples in England and Wales. However, the primary focus for parliament at present is introducing a clear timetable for the change and we will watch on and await to see what happens.