Marriage is a long running institution which legally or formally recognises the union of two people as partners in a personal relationship. Civil partnerships are a form of civil union where same-sex couples register their union with the State to obtain the same benefits as married heterosexual couples.
On 27 June 2018, the Supreme Court declared that civil partnerships were discriminatory because they are available to same-sex couples but denied to heterosexual couples.
What are the differences between marriage and civil partnerships? What is the significance of this decision? Is this the end of civil partnerships in the UK?
Why were civil partnerships introduced?
Civil partnerships were introduced in Europe in the late 1980s and 1990s as a compromise between supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage. They offered same-sex couples a legal recognition of their relationship which carried similar or the same rights as married couples.
Since 2005, same-sex couples in the UK have been able to form civil partnerships. However in 2015 the UK legalised same-sex marriage. Therefore same-sex couples can currently either form a civil partnership or get married, but heterosexual couples can only get married.
By affording rights to same-sex couples and not to opposite-sex couples, the Supreme Court decided that the UK’s civil partnership system was discriminatory.
Why was this issue brought up?
This issue was raised when heterosexual couple, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, took the Government to court to argue for the right to choose to have a civil partnership over marriage.
The couple (and many other heterosexual couples) argue that they do not want to get married. Many view the institution of marriage to be ‘outdated’, ‘outmoded’, ‘patriarchal’ and ‘built on inequality’. Steinfeld and Keidan have stated that they ‘reject the legacy of marriage’ which purports to ‘treat women as property’.
The heterosexual couple wanted to enter into a ‘modern, symmetrical institution’.
What are the differences between civil partnerships and marriage?
Realistically, very little is different.
There are but a few minor differences between the two forms of union. Some of it symbolic and some matters of substance.
For marriages the ceremony is solemnised by the couple saying a prescribed form of words. Whereas in a civil partnership, the couple can simply sign a document.
Marriages can be either a religious or civil/secular ceremony. These can only be conducted at a registered venue or a place that is licensed. Civil partnerships are secular only.
Marriage certificates only include the names of the couple’s fathers, whereas civil partnership certificates include the names of both parents of the couple.
In terms of ‘divorce’ or ‘annulment’ the rules are relatively similar. However in marriage, it can be dissolved if one partner is ‘suffering from a venereal disease in a communicable form’ (ie a sexually transmitted infection). This does not apply to civil partnerships.
Adultery is a ground for a married couple to divorce, but it cannot be relied upon to dissolve a civil partnership.
So does this mean that opposite-sex couples can form civil partnerships?
Not yet. The Supreme Court decision doesn’t change the law. The decision is merely a judgment that states the law on civil partnerships is discriminatory and breaches human rights.
The Government now has three options:
- Abolish civil partnerships now that marriage is open to everyone
- Close civil partnerships for new registrations
- Extend civil partnerships to allow opposite-sex couples to register a civil partnership
Whatever decision the Government makes, it’s not an easy one. It’s no surprise that the Government recently published a command paper on the issue of how to proceed in respect of civil partnerships. It’s expected that the results of their investigation and an announcement will be made in Summer 2019.
The end of civil partnerships?
As society progresses, so do our values. Equal marriage is still a huge victory for the LGBT+ community. But it’s also important, in my opinion, for every couple to be allowed a civil partnership instead of marriage and for both institutions to co-exist.
Civil partnerships and marriage are both indelibly tainted by their past. Just as marriage may carry some patriarchal bias and sexism, civil partnerships carry a history of homophobia. It reminds us that less than a decade ago, extending marriage to same-sex couples was seen as ‘tainting’ the institution of marriage.
The ruling doesn’t change the UK’s civil partnership law, but it calls upon the Government to. As the Government investigates what to do, many supporters of expanding civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples will hope to be able commit to each other without saying ‘I do’.