Civil partnerships: The idea that wouldn’t die

Relationships|October 14th 2019

Last Friday the Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) published its latest annual statistics on formations and dissolutions of civil partnerships in England and Wales, for 2018. The statistics show that civil partnerships are still quite popular amongst same-sex couples, despite the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014.

Third consecutive annual increase

In fact, the number of civil partnership registrations has increased, for the third consecutive year. There were 956 civil partnerships formed in England and Wales in 2018, an increase of 5.3% compared with 908 formations in 2017, and 7.4% more than the 890 formations in 2016.

The figures are about a sixth of what they were before the announcement in December 2013 that that marriages of same-sex couples could take place in England and Wales from the 29th of March 2014.

Still, one might have expected marriage to be the preference for almost all same-sex couples, thereby virtually putting an end to new civil partnerships. This is clearly not what has happened.

So who is entering into a civil partnership?

Well, the figures show that they are predominantly men, with about two-thirds of new civil partnerships involving male couples, a pattern that has continued since 2015.

The figures also show that couples still choosing civil partnerships since the introduction of same-sex marriages are more likely to be older. For example, in 2018, over one in five (21%) of all people forming a civil partnership were aged 65 years or over, the same proportion as in 2017 but very different to the 4% seen in 2013, the year prior to the introduction of marriages of same-sex couples. This finding is reflected in the latest statistics for marriage, for 2016, which showed that nearly all (98%) marriages between same-sex couples were to individuals aged under 65 years.

Quite why civil partnership is more attractive to men and to older couples is not clear. Could it be that more men find the concept of marriage to be outdated? And as to the age point, has this got something to do with the fact that the couples are not making such a long commitment as they would be if they were younger? Or am I talking rubbish? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, the introduction of same-sex marriage did not spell the death-knell for civil partnerships, as some had predicted.

Civil partnership for all

On the contrary, civil partnership as a concept has endured, and it is soon of course to receive a significant boost. The Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc.) Act 2019, passed following the Supreme Court’s decision in the Steinfeld and Keidan case last year, requires the government to make regulations by the end of the year to make couples of the opposite sex eligible to form civil partnerships. What the take-up will be amongst opposite-sex couples, we will have to wait and see, but clearly there are likely to be more new civil partnerships in future.

There is also the intriguing possibility of couples having the right to convert between civil partnership and marriage, and vice versa. Whether this will actually happen is not yet clear, but obviously if it does it could have a considerable effect upon the number of civil partnerships.

In short, civil partnership is still alive, just (one must remember that there were nearly a quarter of a million marriages in 2016, seven thousand of which were between same-sex couples), and it could be about to have a revival, albeit in a way that was certainly not envisaged by those who first put forward the idea. Whether that is a good thing depends upon your point of view, but I think the general consensus is that more choice for couples wishing to make a commitment to one another can’t be a bad thing.

You can find the ONS’s statistical bulletin here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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