This article was originally published in The Times, and can be found here.
Civil partnership and the inequality for couples who live together
Last Friday’s failure to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples is the latest example of the apathy by successive Parliaments towards a perceived inequality for couples living together.
Civil partnerships as well as marriage are available for same sex couples in England, Wales and Scotland, although in Northern Ireland, same sex couples can only register a civil partnership as they may not marry. In the UK, opposite sex couples may marry but may not register civil partnerships. There are some legal differences as to how civil partnership and marriage applies, for example, adultery is available on divorce for opposite sex couples, but can never be a basis for a dissolution of a civil partnership or divorce for same sex couples.
The Government decided not to do anything after a consultation in 2012 on the future of civil partnership in England and Wales, but since then, the Equal Civil Partnerships Campaign has been established by Rebecca Steinfield and Charles Keidan, calling on the Government to extend civil partnership to heterosexual partners, who see this as a fight against discrimination as it enables choice for all partners, no matter their sexual orientation. Their claim for judicial review of the ban on civil partnership for opposite sex couples was heard by the Court of Appeal in November 2016, but the judgment has not been made public. The Government has declined to comment pending those legal proceedings, but an update is promised once those proceedings are concluded.
Civil partnerships are available for opposite sex couples in a number of countries outside the UK, including the Netherlands, Québec, Canada and South Africa. The Isle of Man is the only place within the British Isles that permits both same sex and opposite sex couples to enter into civil partnerships but the Government does not recognise them under UK law.
An early day motion tabled by Alistair Carmichael on 28 October 2016 supporting the extension of civil partnerships to opposite sex couples received 42 signatures by the start of last week. Tim Loughton MP who introduced last week’s failed private member’s bill to extend civil partnerships to opposite sex couples argued that it would promote family stability by enshrining their commitment to each other in the eyes of the law.
The extension of civil partnerships to opposite sex couples would enhance personal autonomy which extends choice of family type for those who do not wish to be constrained by the more traditional notions of marriage. There appears to be little appetite for this on the part of the Government, given that the political landscape has generally become markedly more conservative in recent years about family law reform, despite the ground breaking legislation to permit to same sex marriage, one of the lasting legacies of the Cameron era.
The wider issue at play from a purely legal perspective, however, is that this does not remove the pressing issue of introducing safety net legislation for unmarried couples to protect those left vulnerable under the current law if their relationships break down, many of whom are women with children who have no automatic family law rights to claim financial provision for themselves because their long term partners will not or cannot marry them. Ignoring issues that potentially affect up to 3.1 million opposite sex couples who choose not to marry will not make them go away, as the increasing number of such couples is a demographic that is here to stay.
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