The UK government has resisted making a decision on the future
of civil partnerships but the Court of Appeal has now told the
government that time is running out. Rebecca Steinfeld and
Charles Keidan have campaigned since 2014 for a change in the
law. On 21 February 2017 the Court of Appeal refused to allow
their application for a judicial review of the government's
decision not extend the civil partnership regime to opposite-sex
couples. To do so, the Court said, would be to micro-manage
government policy and it was legitimate for the government to take
time to make a proper assessment. However, the Court of
Appeal made it clear that it was their unanimous view that the bar
constituted a potential violation of their human rights under
Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) and Article 8 (right to
respect for private and family life) of the European
The introduction of civil partnerships for same-sex couples in
2004 was one of the flagship reforms of the Labour
government. The purpose was to give same-sex couples who
registered their relationship as a civil partnership legal
recognition and, consequently, a respected status in the eyes of
the law and society as a whole. Civil partners were given
virtually identical rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex
couples entering into civil marriage. The government
estimates of take up were far too low with almost five times the
numbers forecast having entered into civil partnerships by
In 2012, David Cameron, then leader of the Coalition government,
made a commitment to introduce equal marriage – an
achievement he has since said was one of his career
highlights. Marriage for same-sex couples was introduced in
2013 with the first same sex marriages taking place in 2014.
Whilst there was significant objection during the passage of the
Bill through Parliament that the promise that civil partnerships
would not serve as a 'stepping-stone' to marriage had been
broken, the move received support across the political parties.
However, the introduction of equal marriage left the government
with a conundrum: what to do with the civil partnership
regime? In January 2014 the results of the government's
review were published. Only a minority of the respondents to
the consultation supported the abolition of civil
partnerships. The majority were against closing the
regime. Over three-quarters of the respondents were against
opening up civil partnership to opposite-sex couples. The
government's conclusion? Sit tight and do nothing.
The government preferred instead to wait and see how many same-sex
couples were marrying versus entering into a civil partnership, and
how many same-sex couples in a civil partnership were converting
them to a marriage. Then, based on the statistics, a view
could be formed about what to do.
What the government does in the wake of the Court of
Appeal's commentary remains to be seen. Ms Steinfeld and
Mr Keidan have vowed to continue their legal fight. Perhaps
the response to a new consultation on the future of civil
partnerships would be different now there has been so much
publicity of their case. Certainly there are hundreds of
thousands of couples who cohabit with no protection at all in the
event their relationship breaks down. If the introduction of
opposite-sex civil partnerships, which do not have the associations
of marriage (even if they have the same consequences), would
encourage those couples to formalise their relationships that may
be a good thing. But perhaps even better would be to reform
the law in relation to cohabitation itself.
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