Civil partnerships for all

8th October 2018 Family Law

Ever since same-sex couples became able to marry in 2014, the law in England and Wales has been left with a strange anomaly. The government chose not to abolish civil partnerships the forerunner to same-sex marriage introduced in 2004 but it did not open them up to opposite sex couples either. As a result, same-sex couples have been able to choose between marriage or civil partnership whereas opposite sex couples only have the option of marriage. This summer, the Supreme Court agreed that this amounted to discrimination and told the government that the law breached its citizens’ human rights.

In response, the Prime Minister announced at her party conference last week that the government plans to make civil partnerships available to same and opposite sex couples, giving everyone two options. Legally in this country at least there is very little difference between civil partnership and marriage. The rights granted by each institution are all but identical and the procedure for bringing either type of relationship to an end (apart from a few technicalities) is the same.

However, difficulties can arise when a couple relocate abroad, particularly if they then decide to separate in their adopted country. The work of bringing about marriage equality throughout the world is far from over but progress is being made. Marriage is internationally recognised and understood and a steady trickle of countries are bringing in same sex marriage with each passing year. The same cannot be said of non-marriage legal partnership options which tend to vary from country to country in terms of who can enter into them and what rights and responsibilities they entail.

I would be cautious to recommend a couple (same or opposite sex) to enter into a civil partnership, especially if they have plans to relocate abroad, as they may find that their new country does not recognise them as anything other than cohabitees. This will remain a problem for same sex couples married in the UK but the situation improves incrementally each time another country enacts marriage equality. There is an option of dissolving the partnership back in the UK as a last resort but it isn’t just about splitting up; marital status can impact upon inheritance rights, the ability to get visas, the status of children, and eligibility for state benefits.

To take a very simple example, close to home: the Isle of Man already allows all couples to choose between marriage and civil partnership. If an opposite sex couple with a Manx civil partnership relocated to the mainland, the legal status of their union would not be recognised here until the proposal to allow opposite sex civil partnerships become law. For now, they would simply be treated as cohabitants.

I do welcome the opening up of civil partnerships for opposite sex couples in the name of equality. Nevertheless, unless countries work together to create new worldwide norms for recognising committed partnership arrangements other than marriage, internationally mobile couples may find themselves encountering uncertainty.

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Hepzi Williams-Arnold is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Family department

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