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Will civil partnership become the new marriage?

As I’m sure you will be aware, the first opposite-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships in England and Wales tied the knot on New Year’s Eve (the media has been full of the news). I understand that both Scotland and Northern Ireland will shortly follow suit, but what follows relates primarily to just England and Wales.

Far-reaching consequences

This new option for opposite-sex couples may not have been universally welcomed (if you have a quick look at any social media channel you will know what I mean), but it could have far-reaching consequences.

Many of the media reports mentioned that the Government estimates that up to 84,000 mixed-sex couples could form civil partnerships this year in England and Wales. I believe that is a little misleading. The figure, I think, comes from the Government’s Impact Assessment for the law change, which actually gave that figure as the highest of three estimates, depending upon the take-up of civil partnerships by opposite-sex couples. In fact, the ‘Central Take-up Scenario’ gave a figure of 26,614, and the ‘Low Take-up Scenario’ gave a figure of just 2,698.

So the situation is that there could be a lot of civil partnerships between opposite-sex couples, rather than that there will be.

There is, however, some other evidence which suggests that that is more likely to be a ‘will’ than a ‘could’, but I will come to that in a moment.

First, let us consider the High Take-up Scenario, the actual figure for which is 83,959.

To put that into context, in 2016, the latest year for which marriage statistics are available, there were about 250,000 marriages in England and Wales. Now, obviously, there is likely to be a spike in opposite-sex couples entering into civil partnerships this year (again, more of which in just a moment), as many will have been waiting for the law to allow them to do so. Still, 84,000 is a large fraction of 250,000. Could it be that civil partnership will become the new marriage? Could it be that, at some point in the future, more couples will choose the civil partnership route than the marriage route?

OK, before we get carried away, back to that spike. The Impact Assessment suggests that even in the High Take-up Scenario the number will fall to 44,800 in 2021, and to 37,252 in 2022. However, it is expected that thereafter the numbers will gradually rise again, up to 48,923 in 2029, the last year for which an estimate is given. And the story is broadly similar with the two lower take-up scenarios: in 2029 28,862 for the Central Take-up Scenario and 18,949 for the Low Take-up Scenario.

Still, up to 50,000 opposite-sex civil partnerships in ten years’ time is still quite a high proportion, perhaps about one in six of all opposite-sex unions. Of course, some of the new opposite-sex civil partnerships will come out of the ‘pool’ of couples who would otherwise simply have cohabited, rather than couples who would otherwise have got married. Nevertheless, it does seem that civil partnership may become a new ‘normal’, even if it does not become the norm.

The Netherlands

And so to that other piece of evidence, also mentioned in the Impact Assessment. The Netherlands has had opposite-sex civil partnerships (as I will call them) since 1998, and what has happened there since then is really quite interesting. The initial take-up was very low – only 2% of all opposite-sex unions in 1998. However, in about the year 2000 that began to increase, up to about 13% in 2004. It then ‘flat-lined’ for a few years, before going up again from about 2013, rising to 23% in 2018. One wonders what triggered the increases.

Obviously, we do not know whether the increase in the Netherlands will continue, but even if it does not, about a quarter of all opposite-sex unions being civil partnerships is clearly very significant.

Of course, the experience in England and Wales (and eventually the UK) may differ from that in the Netherlands. But still, there does seem to be a good likelihood that civil partnership may ultimately become a serious alternative to marriage here as well.

You can find the Impact Assessment here.

Oh, and if you are wondering what exactly is the difference between a civil partnership and a marriage, here is a helpful table prepared by the Government Equalities Office, which explains everything.

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, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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