The future of civil partnerships?

Marriage|January 13th 2017

On Friday 13 January, Conservative MP Tim Loughton stood up in the House of Commons and quoted some comments I recently gave Solicitors Journal. The MP for East Worthing and Shoreham told the House:

“Last week, there was a very supportive article in the Solicitors Journal, which referred to the current anomaly as “discriminatory”. Marilyn Stowe, the senior partner at Stowe Family Law, said: ‘To some couples the concept of marriage is outdated. They do not wish to marry but equally seek a legally recognised civil union where vows and promises to each other are not required.’ “

The occasion was the second reading of his private member’s bill would amend the original Civil Partnership Act from back in 2004 to make straight couples also eligible for this very modern alternative to marriage.

No less than 12 years after they were first introduced, civil partnerships continue to cause controversy. Of course, we are – thankfully – long past the point at which the mere thought of officially sanctioning a same sex relationship raised eyebrows. Society has evolved – for the most part! – and we have, of course, serenely sailed on, right past the introduction of gay marriage itself.

But civil partnerships linger, like the ghost of Banquo at the feast. Surprisingly few of the couples who entered a civil partnership have converted the relationship into the full marriages now available – although perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of new partnerships formed has fallen sharply.

Nevertheless, they remain an option – but for gay couples only. Civil partnerships were introduced as a halfway house – a ‘not quite but almost’ measure intended to reflect 21st social acceptance of gay relationships while at the same time acknowledging the fact that for some, full marriage, with its all its associations and traditions, was still a step too far.

Time passed, and once we’d all had a few years to get used to the idea of official recognition, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 had a largely untroubled passage through Parliament. Yes, objections were raised, but these were largely limited to the most socially conservative and religious.

But when the first gay marriages duly took place in March 2014, the Government then found itself faced with a dilemma it may not have given all that much thought to: what to do with all those civil partnerships? The institution couldn’t be abolished because that would legally invalidate individual partnerships. And clearly, all those civil partners couldn’t be forced into marriages either!

So the option was left on the table. The Government sat back and waited to see what would happen.

MPs and social commentators suddenly realised that the tables had turned in a curious way. From a recent past in which they had no options at all, gay couples had now moved into a situation in which they had more rights than straight ones: an untidy anomaly that was bound to fester despite a public consultation suggesting that a majority of people still find the idea of straight couples too radical.

London couple Dr Rebecca Steinfeld and Chris Keidan took up the cause,  campaigning enthusiastically on the issue all the way to the High Court. They said they were attracted to the modern, egalitarian air of civil partnerships, they explained: in other words, the very absence of the social traditions and historical associations that make the institution of marriage so distinctive.

Their High Court challenge was dismissed but they subsequently appealed. We are still awaiting a decision. Meanwhile, an online petition started by the couple attracted not less than 71,000 signatures in support, many times more than the government consultation. So perhaps the public are not quite as indifferent as the Government suggests.

And of course Tim Loughton has also taken an interest, raising the topic in the House of Commons and tabling his bill. According to Solicitors Journal, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green MPs have all expressed support.

My own view is a straightforward one: I’m a big believer in marriage, as any regular reader of this blog will attest. But I just cannot see how the current, awkward, one-sided arrangement, with its unintentional  but real discrimination, can possibly be justified.

Dr Steinfeld and her partner are a perfect example of the problems posed. If you , like they do, believe traditional marriage is an out-of-date relic of the past, but still wish to formalise your partnership and secure your legal rights, then your options are what exactly? You have none. Your only option as a straight couple if you don’t wish to marry is to live together, with all the legal risks and uncertainties that entails.

Civil partnerships also provide a neat solution for those straight couples who may wish to live in countries which require both a religious and civil marriage ceremony. If you are religiously minded, a civil ceremony may seem an unwelcome detraction from the special religious one: so why not have a civil partnership, which is not a marriage, then marry abroad in a religious ceremony?

This very obvious, and very dangly, loose end will have to be remedied sooner or later. Perhaps that day is now on its way? If so, I say, about time.

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  1. Andrew says:

    The Bill was talked out by a Minister who tells everyone to wait for the Government’s own review. This was never going to be done by a Private Member’s Bill – not even a hand-out bill which this was not. Too important for that.

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