Civil partnerships were introduced by the Civil Partnership Act 2004. This legislation gave same-sex couples access to the same rights as opposite-sex couples enjoyed via a civil marriage. This year, the Supreme Court ruled that heterosexual couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan had the same right to a civil partnership as a same-sex couple did. Restricting the availability of civil partnerships only to same-sex unions was found to be discriminatory and incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result, the government has recently announced that there will be a change in the law relating to civil partnerships.
The current situation
Civil partnerships are only available to same-sex couples. So, currently there is no alternative for opposite-sex couples who do not want to get married but who still want to have legal recognition of their relationship. Civil partnerships were introduced in December 2005 and in 2014 the law was changed so that same-sex couples could also get married. This has created a situation whereby same-sex couples now have the choice of marriage or a civil partnership but opposite-sex couples do not.
Civil partnership vs. marriage
In terms of the mechanics of a civil partnership and a marriage the two are very much alike but there are some subtle differences.
Legality. A civil partnership becomes legal when the second person entering into the union signs the relevant documentation. With respect to marriage, this happens when spoken words are exchanged by the couple.
Ending the union. The courts are required to get involved to end both a marriage and a civil partnership. However, while a civil partnership is “dissolved” by both parties, the ending of a marriage is achieved by one partner divorcing the other.
Adultery. Couples can divorce on the basis of adultery but this is not available as a reason to dissolve a civil partnership.
Validity. Not all countries in the world recognise a civil partnership but marriage is broadly recognisable.
Outside of the mechanics of these two options there are differences in terms of heritage, perceptions and equality. As Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan who fought the Supreme Court case said, there are many issues with the “legacy of marriage” for some people, particularly as it had “treated women as property for centuries.“
The planned changes
The law relating to civil partnerships will be changed so that this type of union becomes an option available to opposite-sex couples too. The intention is to ensure that all couples have the same choices and opportunities when it comes to formalising a relationship. Currently, many opposite-sex couples who do not want to get married are co-habiting – and often believe that this provides some protection. However, the reality is that it does not. Thanks to the change in the law – due to come into force in April 2019 – opposite-sex couples will be able to legally formalise a relationship, and enjoy all the protection that brings, without having to enter into the infrastructure of marriage in order to do it.