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Should we keep civil partnerships, or allow them to die?

Sometimes you find that an idea, even if it is a good one, can have had its day. Is this the case with civil partnerships?

To briefly recap, civil partnerships were introduced by the Civil Partnerships Act 2004. The Act enabled same sex couples in England and Wales to obtain legal recognition of their relationship by registering as civil partners of each other. A civil partnership is not a marriage, but gives the parties many of the rights enjoyed by married people. Note that civil partnerships are not available to opposite-sex couples.

Moving on, in 2013 the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was passed, which enabled same sex couples in England and Wales to marry, from the 29th of March 2014. The Act did not remove the availability of civil partnerships for same sex couples, but did provide that those in a civil partnership could convert that relationship to a marriage if they wished to do so.

Last week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published statistics showing that there has been a steep decline in civil partnerships since the introduction of same-sex marriage. The number of civil partnerships formed in England and Wales in 2015 dropped by nearly half and the decrease since 2013 is a massive 85 per cent.

All of which begs the question, as the ONS itself asks: What is the future of civil partnerships? The ONS didn’t answer the question, only saying that:

“The Government Equalities Office (GEO) considers that it is too early to fully evaluate the impact of the introduction of marriage for same sex couples on civil partnerships – more years of data are required. GEO will therefore continue to monitor the number of civil partnership formations taking place in England and Wales.”

So, basically no decision yet.

Now, I have previously written here setting out my views on civil partnerships since the introduction of same-sex marriage, and those views have changed over time. At first I took the view that civil partnerships were only ever intended as a stop-gap (because back in 2004 the country was not yet ready for same-sex marriage) and that therefore with the introduction of same-sex marriage civil partnerships should be phased out entirely. However, I subsequently had a re-think and came to the conclusion that there was no reason to do away with civil partnerships and, in fact, that they should be made available to all, a view shared by Marilyn Stowe.

Do the latest statistics change that view? Well, I suppose, rather like the answer given by the GEO, it depends upon what happens. The statistics are no surprise but if civil partnerships die a natural death because people no longer want them then there would obviously be little point in keeping them.

At the moment, however, same-sex couples are still entering into civil partnerships rather than marriage, albeit in far fewer numbers than before. Clearly, therefore, some couples have their reasons for not getting married (there is, of course, no reason why a same-sex couple might not object to marriage other than between two people of the opposite sex). There is still a demand for civil partnership, and obviously that demand may increase if civil partnership is made available to all couples.

I guess the question whether civil partnerships have had their day will ultimately be answered by the people rather than by the government. It will not be a question of allowing them to die, although opening them up to opposite-sex couples may obviously affect the process, but rather a question of whether the people want them to stay. If they don’t, there is surely no point in keeping them. If they do, there is no reason not to.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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