UK: The Inequality Of Civil Partnerships

Last Updated: 24 October 2016
Article by Richard Handel

The first opposite-sex civil partnership was celebrated in the Isle of Man recently between Adeline Cosson and Kieran Hodgson. They said they wanted to 'keep it simple' rather than have a traditional wedding and that, although they do want to marry one day, it is not what they want now. Whilst the Isle of Man is a Crown Dependency, it is not part of the UK and has different laws. It is the only place in the British Isles which allows and recognises opposite-sex civil partnerships.

The right to enter into opposite-sex civil partnerships has been a hot topic since the introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK in 2014. Civil partnerships for same-sex couples were not abolished when the right to marry was legalised, so whilst same-sex couples can now choose to either marry or enter into a civil partnership, opposite-sex couples do not have the choice.

When same-sex marriage was introduced there was a campaign for a change in the law to allow heterosexual couples to enter in civil partnerships. However, despite a 2012 Government consultation in which 61% of about 200,000 respondents said civil partnerships should be available to opposite-sex couples, the Government said that a subsequent consultation led to no consensus and no change to the law was made.

It is clear that there is an appetite for a change in the law with many opposite-sex couples wanting to enter into civil partnership rather than marrying, or at least have a choice. Many feel they do not want to be labelled a 'wife' or 'husband' and feel that civil partnership reflects the equality in their relationship. The strength of feeling is so strong for some that one couple have sought a judicial review of the Governments' decision and, whilst they lost in the High Court, the Court of Appeal is expected to hear the case in November. Another London based couple have been so determined to enter into their own civil partnership that they travelled to the Isle of Man last week to do so. This is despite the fact that their union is unlikely to be recognised in the UK.

Whatever the reason for a couple wanting to enter into a civil partnership rather than marry, from a legal perspective, there is very little difference. A civil partnership carries the same rights and responsibilities as marriage and therefore no additional rights or responsibilities will be conferred on couples who chose to marry rather than enter into a civil partnership, or vice versa if it were possible.

Ironically, perhaps the most significant difference between marriage and civil partnership is one of the bases for dissolving the union. Adultery cannot be the basis for the dissolution of a civil partnership, whereas it can be the basis for divorce in marriage (both opposite- and same-sex). If opposite-sex civil partnerships were to become legal, a question remains as to whether adultery should become a ground for dissolution of opposite-sex partnerships and same-sex partnerships. Parliament would have to consider this and in doing so it may also have the opportunity to review divorce law generally. Many family law practitioners have been advocating for years a 'no fault' based divorce law to avoid couples having to apportion blame or wait a number of years before divorcing. Resolution are proponents of this and intend to lobby the Government later this year.

Whatever the future holds, be that the introduction of opposite-sex civil partnership or a complete review of the divorce laws, there are clearly many issues surrounding the formation and dissolution of relationships that have still to be resolved.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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