Civil partnerships increase in popularity…slightly

16th October 2019 Family Law

Data released by the Office of National Statistics in the last few days shows that the number of civil partnerships formed in England and Wales increased modestly for the third year in a row to 956.

Civil partnership formations fell dramatically upon the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014. However, civil partnership numbers appear to have stabilized and, while it would be premature to call this 5.3% annual increase a “revival”, it seems that the institution of civil partnership has embedded itself in our culture and certainly has not been killed off by the introduction of marriage equality. To put this into a bit of context, 7,019 marriages between same-sex couples took place in 2016 (the most recent year for which data is available). The increase in civil partnership registrations notwithstanding, marriage is by far the more popular format for same-sex couples.

Parliament passed legislation (remember when that used to happen…?) earlier this year, mandating that civil partnerships would be made available to opposite-sex couples via regulation (rather than a further Act of Parliament) by the end of 2019.

It will be very interesting to see what take up of civil partnerships will be among opposite-sex couples. Some campaigners for equal civil partnership rights believe that they will be attractive to currently cohabiting couples as they provide the same legal safeguards as a marriage without any of the patriarchal or religious associations that are perceived to accompany it. However, I am not sure that a significant number of couples choose to remain unmarried because of an ideological difficulty with the institution of marriage, though a proportion undoubtedly do. In my experience, it is more likely that cohabiting couples – who have virtually no rights or protections upon the breakdown of their relationship – remain unmarried as a result of inertia, previous experience of divorce, or simply because they are not ready, whether financially or emotionally, to tie the knot.

Will the ratio of civil partnerships to marriages among same-sex couples (roughly 1:7) be replicated among opposite-sex couples? It will be some years before the statistics come out, but I suspect that after an initial period of popularity amongst those who have remained unmarried for ideological reasons, civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples will level off and take their place as an established but minority option, as they have done amongst same-sex couples.

The average age of couples entering into a civil partnership is another interesting aspect of this data release. The average age for women was 51.6 years and 50.5 years for men. This is significantly higher than the average age for same-sex couples marrying: 40.8 years for men and 37.4 years for women (2016 figures). It is tempting to speculate on what this all might mean but without further research it is difficult to determine what is driving the age differential.

The option to convert a civil partnership into a marriage remains open. We don’t know yet whether the government plans to allow conversion from a marriage to a civil partnership to coincide with the introduction of civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. My guess would be not, though there is no logical reason for the process being other than two-way. Eventually, I would expect the conversion process to be phased out. Once both marriage and civil partnership have become tried and tested options for all couples, it might be reasonable to expect that allowing movement between the two statuses would become unnecessary.

Fun fact: London is the most popular region for the formation of civil partnerships, accounting for 32% of the total.

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