It may be hard to believe, but the first same sex marriages took place a year ago today.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act came into force at one minute past midnight on March 29, 2014, legislation hailed by most as a great step forward but condemned by others.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 95 marriages took place in England and Wales in the first three days alone after the law came into force. The only currently available statistics, for the first three months of the year, tell us that a total of 1,409 marriages took place between same sex couples between March 29 and June 30, 2014. Fifty-six per cent of these were female couples and 44 per cent male. The breakdown per month is 351 marriages in April, 465 in May and 498 in June.
I remember that rainbow flag flying over Whitehall one year ago. I was so proud to be part of a legal system that brought this law into force. It was progressive, it addressed the needs of a portion of our society who had been fighting for years, and it was the right thing to do.
Of course it is still relatively early days, and we won’t get a proper picture of what’s happening until more statistics are available. But one interesting point is the fact that that the great majority of men and women entering a same sex marriage in the first three months had never been married or been in a civil partnership before – 91 per cent of men and 79 per cent of women. Last year, we saw lots of news reports of civil partners getting married as a result of the new Act, but it would appear that a lot of couples quietly got married without being in legal partnerships beforehand.
But the statistics are only a part of the story. We also need to look at how the law itself has progressed over the last year. After a delay of nine months, civil partners received the right to convert their relationships into marriage on December 10, 2014. Such couples can do so at the registry office or in another venue where same sex marriage is allowed. Once married, the couples have their marriage certificates backdated and their marriage is then deemed to have legally started from the date of their original civil partnership.
This creates an interesting point for same sex divorce. Legally, you need to have been married for a year before you can file for divorce, but if a couple entered a civil partnership back in 2005 and then converted this into a marriage in 2014, under the terms of the Act they would legally have been married for over nine years at that point and therefore entitled to divorce. At the moment there are no hard statistics on same sex divorce, but just as some heterosexual marriages break down not long after the ink is dry on the certificate, some gay couples have already turned to the divorce courts.
The most recent available statistics to compare heterosexual divorce and dissolutions of civil partnerships are from 2012. These show 118,140 divorces in England and Wales that year, a small increase of 0.5 per cent since 2011, while there were 794 civil partnership dissolutions. Despite being considerably smaller, the latter figure actually represents an increase of 20 per cent since 2011. But it is likely that this sharp increase is simply a consequence of the number of civil partnerships that now exist in England and Wales. These relationships are progressing through a natural cycle and in my view it would be rash to try to extrapolate the current statistics onto any future comparisons between same sex divorces and heterosexual divorces.
The new law was also a positive step forward for transsexual spouses. A transsexual person who wants the same rights as others of their acquired gender needs to obtain a gender recognition certificate. Previously, a married transsexual applying for this certificate could not remain married because marriage was only for two people of the opposite sex. But introduction of the Act meant an individual who was married and then underwent gender reassignment could now remain married, if they wished to do so – provided their spouse consented of course.
This one year anniversary should be a time for celebration: we travelled a long road and achieved justice. It would also, perhaps, be a time to look at those parts of the law that have not progressed in the same way. For example, should heterosexual couples have the right to form civil partnerships for example?
For now at least, the government says no. The current government’s Equalities Office consulted on this last year, but parked the issue after a lack of public consensus. Some respondents to the consultation said it was too soon to consider changes to civil partnership legislation and that change should wait until the impact of same sex marriage is known. Others said that civil partnerships and marriage were different types of relationship and that all couples should have the same access to both forms of relationship.
Since then a heterosexual couple who wanted to form a civil partnership and had been turned away from a registry office have been given permission to mount a legal challenge. They say the current rules are discriminatory and it will be interesting to see the outcome of their case. But whatever happens, the question of civil partnerships for heterosexual couples is one that the next government will probably have to face head on at some point, whether they like it or not.