Opposite sex civil partnerships - it's happening

11th November 2019 Family Law

Just before Parliament shut up shop and transitioned into General Election mode, a little piece of secondary legislation passed through the House of Lords. The Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) Regulations 2019 will enable opposite-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership. At present only same-sex couples can get a civil partnership as an alternative to marriage whereas opposite sex couples can only marry. This will all change next month. The Regulations come into force on 2 December, meaning that the first ceremonies could take place on 31 December, taking into account a 28-day notice period.

How did we get here? It has been a very long journey to get to a point where couples can choose between marriage and civil partnership in order to formalise their relationship and benefit from the rights offered by the law.

In December 2005, the first civil partnership ceremonies took place, enabling same-sex couples – for the first time in UK history – to gain official recognition for their relationship and benefit from a set of rights and responsibilities equivalent to those afforded to married couples. It took almost a decade for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry and the first ceremonies took place in March 2014.

Many thought that the introduction of marriage equality may lead to the “retiring” of civil partnerships. However, the government decided to allow the two statuses to continue side by side. Couples already in civil partnerships could and still can “convert” and obtain a marriage certificate, with or without a ceremony according to personal preference.

This situation led to what some identified as a major problem: opposite-sex couples could only marry whereas same-sex couples could choose between civil partnership and marriage. The possibility of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was acknowledged within government but it was decided to take a long-term decision after “further investigations”. Consultation and review were felt to be inconclusive and the mismatch between the position for same- and opposite- sex couples remained.

Private members bills (legislation introduced by back-bench MPs or individual lords) came to Parliament to address the issue but failed to proceed for lack of government support. Eventually legislation was passed setting a road-map for evidence gathering and consultation but the time-frame for this was somewhat open-ended.

In the meantime, a London couple, Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, became the focus of a movement towards civil partnership equality. For conscientious reasons, the couple did not wish to marry but wished to register a civil partnership instead. Knowing this was impossible under the current law, they judicially reviewed the government’s decision not to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Finally, in June 2018 after hearings in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court over a period of years, they won. The Supreme Court found that the government’s handling of this gap in the law was discriminatory.

This did not guarantee universal civil partnerships. The discrimination could have been eliminated at a stroke by phasing out civil partnerships entirely. However, the opposite decision was taken and – in common with territories including the Isle of Man – the UK is set to offer a choice to all couples between marriage and civil partnership…and we now have a date for that.

It will be really interesting to see how popular civil partnerships become amongst opposite-sex couples. ONS data shows that despite experiencing a dramatic drop off after the introduction of same sex marriage, civil partnerships remain a significant minority choice amongst same sex couples, there being roughly one new civil partnership for every seven new marriages. Perhaps we could see a flurry of opposite-sex civil partnership registrations, possibly a reactive rise among same-sex couples, and then a settling down of the ratio. There will be no option at first to convert from an opposite sex marriage to a civil partnership but this seems a logical next step. As for the longer term picture, who can say what the future holds for either institution.

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Deborah Antonio is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Family department

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