It’s an idea that has been around for as long as the idea of civil partnership itself, but I don’t believe I have mentioned it here or commented upon it. In fact, until now, I hadn’t really given it that much thought at all.
The idea of extending civil partnerships to sibling couples has perhaps been rather overshadowed by the debate over extending them to opposite-sex couples, the recent Supreme Court decision on that issue filling the headlines across all forms of media.
However, over a year ago now Conservative peer Lord Lexden introduced the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) (Sibling Couples) Bill, having raised the matter in Parliament back in September 2015. The Bill is scheduled to receive its second reading in the House of Lords this Friday.
So what is the idea behind the Bill?
Well, first let’s look at what the Bill states. It is very short, effectively just having one paragraph. By that paragraph, an extra category of people is added to those who can enter into a civil partnership. That category is defined as follows:
“Two persons who are considered to be siblings, both of whom are aged over thirty years, are eligible to register as civil partners if they have lived together for a continuous period of twelve years immediately prior to the date of registration.”
“Sibling” is defined to mean “a brother, sister, half-brother or half-sister.” (I should explain that civil partnerships are not only unavailable to opposite-sex couples, they are also unavailable to people who are within ‘prohibited degrees of relationship’, which includes siblings. Thus, they are not currently available even to siblings of the same sex.)
Lord Lexden has explained the purpose of the Bill thus:
“Civil partnerships recognise in clear legal terms the value of close mutually supportive relationships outside traditional marriage. The exclusion of cohabiting blood relations from the right to form one is discriminatory. [The] Bill would begin the process of correcting a serious injustice. The rights that a civil partnership confers—inheritance of joint tenancies and pension rights, and of property free from tax—should be available to all long-term, financially inter-dependent cohabiting partners.
[The] Bill represents the first step towards fairness and legal equality for platonic cohabitees by extending eligibility for civil partnerships to siblings over 30 years of age who have lived together continuously for twelve years.”
So, the idea is to give siblings who live together long-term certain rights when the relationship ends, particularly upon the death of one of them. As the law stands at present siblings are in a similar, but not identical, position to cohabitees. For example, unlike spouses and civil partners they cannot inherit capital from a deceased sibling without it being subject to inheritance tax. Unlike cohabitees, they may automatically inherit if the sibling dies intestate, but their position is much weaker than that of a spouse or civil partner.
Otherwise, any claim against the property of the sibling will be subject to the same uncertainties and complexities as such claims by cohabitees. In short, the basis of the idea is not dissimilar to the idea of giving property rights to cohabitees. In just the same way that it is considered to be unfair that a cohabitee who devotes a considerable period of their life to such a relationship may be left with nothing, or in a parlous financial state, it is also considered to be unfair that a sibling who devotes a considerable period of their life to such a relationship may be left in a similar state.
And what are my thoughts upon all of this?
Well, I can see the positives, as outlined above. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I can see any serious negatives. When the proposal was raised previously in Parliament the argument put forward by those opposing it was essentially along the lines that civil partnerships are a matter of choice, whereas blood, or birth, relationships are not.
But that is not really an argument at all. If there is unfairness, there is unfairness, no matter how it came about. And in any event, there IS a choice for these siblings – they choose to live together and rely upon one another, long-term.
I wish the Bill well, although I should point out that, being a private members’ bill, it has only a small chance of making it on to the statute book. I will not, therefore, be holding my breath.