As of 31 December 2019, civil partnerships will be available to opposite sex couples, a legal development which for many has been long anticipated.
Civil partnerships were first introduced in 2004 by virtue of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, establishing a legal union for same-sex couples akin, although not identical, to marriage. At the time, civil partnerships were the only form of legal union available to same-sex couples, until the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 legalised same-sex marriage.
This has meant that since 2013 there has been a disparity between same-sex couples being able to chose between entering into a marriage or civil partnerships, whilst opposite sex couples having the sole option of marriage.
Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, who spearheaded the campaign for this change in the law, took their case to the Supreme Court in 2018, arguing that prohibiting opposite sex couples from entering into civil partnerships amounted to discrimination. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of Mr Keidan and Miss Steinfeld, Parliament introduced the Civil Partnership, Marriages and Deaths (Registration) Act 2019, which enables “persons who are not of the same-sex to form a civil partnership in England and Wales”.
From 31 December 2019, family lawyers will eagerly take note of the number of opposite sex couples who decide to enter in civil partnerships, rather than marry or cohabit long-term. Whilst uptake is difficult to predict, it is interesting to consider the potential implications of this reform to civil partnerships.
Extending civil partnerships to opposite sex couples is an opportunity to highlight the lack of financial and legal protection offered to cohabiting couples, and celebrate an alternative way to formalise couples’ legal union.
It is estimated that there are 3.3 million unmarried couples in the UK who are cohabiting. The Law Commissions’ report (dated July 2017) revealed that the majority of cohabiting couples believe there to be a principle of ‘common law marriage’ within the law. The concept of a common law marriage is however a myth, as cohabitees do not have access to the statutory remedies available to married couples and couples in civil partnerships upon separation or death.
It is anticipated that in light of this change of law opposite sex couples, who do not wish to marry, may choose to formalise their relationship by way of a civil partnership. In doing so, obtaining the financial benefits and protection of marriage.
Another implication of this change of law is that fathers who will be in a civil partnership with the child’s mother at the time of the child’s birth will automatically obtain parental responsibility for that child, as is the current law for married fathers.
Ensuring that parental rights for fathers are equally legislated for in relation to civil partnerships and marriage is of course imperative. However, the practical implications of this are somewhat limited given that fathers do in any event obtain parental responsibility if they are named on the child’s birth certificate.
Distinction from Marriage
This change in the law has been celebrated for providing a legal union for opposite sex couples distinct from the institution of marriage. However, despite being ideologically and historically separate from marriage, much of the law and procedures in relation to civil partnership are equivalent to marriage.
In summary, this change in law can be seen as a positive step in empowering all couples to decide whether, marriage, civil partnership or cohabitation reflects their personal and financial understanding of their relationship. Notwithstanding the significance of this milestone in family law, it does appear, at this stage, that the legal and practical implications of this development are somewhat limited, but nonetheless welcomed by many.
For advice on this and other family law issues please contact a member of our Family Law team.
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