Equality for heterosexual couples?

I wrote a blog back in July 2018 (which you can read here) titled “To say ‘I do’ or ‘I don’t’? The end of civil partnerships?”. 

It was about the Supreme Court ruling that stated the current civil partnership regime in the UK was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. This was because civil partnerships were only available to same-sex couples but denied to opposite-sex couples. Fast forward a year later, and the Government has officially announced extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples.

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 will be amended so that opposite-sex couples will be eligible to form a civil partnership in England and Wales (providing they are otherwise eligible to do so apart from the question of sex). This will be implemented by 31 December 2019. 

The original position

Civil partnerships were originally created to enable same-sex couples to formalise their relationship at a time when marriage was not available to them. The former Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government then legalised same-sex marriage in 2013-2014.

Many campaigners and equality activists still argued that there was an urgent need for reform to reflect the changing attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation. Statistics from 2017 showed that 3.3 million cohabiting couples were not married and 60% of these couples had dependent children.

It’s estimated that two thirds of couples who cohabit incorrectly believe they have the same rights as married couples or couples in a civil partnership. The new legislation hopes to provide an alternative to marriage that provides couples with both stability and legal protection.

What else is changing?

Apart from extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, there will be further reforms to the civil partnerships regime. 

Currently, a civil partner does not automatically have parental responsibility. Similarly, a person who has given birth to a child and subsequently forms a civil partnership does not, by doing so, give their civil partner parental responsibility for the child. The government plans to amend the law so that if a child’s mother and father were in a civil partnership at the time of the child’s birth, or later form a civil partnership, they shall each have parental responsibility for the child.

Also at present, a civil partner who wishes to change their gender cannot obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and remain in the civil partnership (unless both parties obtain gender recognition on the same date). Such a person must apply to the Gender Recognition Panel (GRP) for an interim GRC. 

Following the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014, it became possible for people to remain in their marriages on issue of a full GRC to one spouse, provided the other spouse consents. It also became possible for couples to convert a same-sex civil partnership into a marriage. After the conversion, one spouse can then obtain a full GRC and the marriage can continue, again only if the other spouse agrees.

Now that opposite-sex couples will be able to form civil partnerships in England and Wales, the government intend to permit civil partnerships to continue where one party is issued with a full GRC, without the need to dissolve the civil partnership or convert it to a marriage. As with marriage, this will only be possible where the other civil partner consents, and where the civil partnership was formed in England and Wales. 

What’s the position in Scotland or Northern Ireland?

The law relating to marriage and civil partnerships is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland and therefore they make their own decisions about whether to introduce civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. 

The Scottish Government consulted last year on whether to introduce opposite-sex civil partnerships in Scotland. The Scottish Government announced that it would introduce legislation in the Scottish Parliament extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples.

In Northern Ireland, marriage and civil partnerships are also devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. However due to the absence of a devolved government in Northern Ireland, this means the proposals cannot be fully debated or considered. This means that opposite-sex civil partnerships formed in England and Wales would not be recognised in Northern Ireland.

The future of conversion?

Under the same-sex marriage laws, it allowed same-sex couples who entered into a civil partnership, to convert it into a state recognised marriage. The rationale behind allowing same-sex couples to convert their civil partnerships to marriage was to allow them access to a form of relationship previously denied to them.

The government’s view is to then allow opposite-sex married couples the opportunity to conver their marriage into a civil partnrship. 

However there is scepticism about an “open-ended conversion” system which allows couples to convert from civil partnerships to marriage and vice-versa. There is a risk that open-ended conversion could undermine the distinction between marriage and civil partnership, and create long-term administrative complexity, uncertainty and confusion about the status of a couple’s relationship and their rights. 

Equality for all?

Introducing civil partnerships to oppsite-sex couples is a step to introducing equality for all. I previously wrote that it was important to allow every couple the opportunity to choose between whether to marry or form a civil partnership. 

I still believe this to be true. But I also want to be devil’s advocate and argue that if both marriage and civil partnerships co-exist anyway with very little difference, then what really is the difference? Is it purely semantic differences? Is it just ceremonial differences? Will people just be given the choice of whether to marry or form a civil partnership?

Alan Cheung