Civil partnerships – to abolish or extend?

For four years, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan have fought a legal campaign to secure civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. They disagree with the “historically patriarchal” implications of traditional marriages and believe they should, like same-sex couples, be granted the right to choose between marriage and civil partnership.

As an unmarried couple, Steinfeld and Keidan do not benefit from the financial and legal protection enjoyed by their married counterparts. The couple argue that they should be permitted these basic rights through a civil partnership if they wish.

The legal situation

The Civil Partnership Act, passed by the Labour Government in 2004, entitles same-sex couples to enter a civil partnership whereby they receive the same legal effects, rights and obligations as a legal marriage. Civil partnerships are almost identical to legal marriages, with the exception that they must not include a religious component. Couples in civil partnerships are treated equally in matters of inheritance, next-of-kin arrangements, tax and pensions. Their partnership can be dissolved under the same rules as a traditional marriage. 

Civil partnerships are currently only available to same-sex couples in the UK. Prior to the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013, under which same-sex couples can now legally marry, the Civil Partnership Act was the first to provide same-sex couples with the equivalent legal entitlements as opposite-sex couples. Now, unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex couples can choose between marriage or civil partnerships depending on their personal preferences.

Many feel that this is discriminatory, as heterosexual couples who cohabitate, but do not wish to legally marry, must resign themselves to having fewer legal rights. For example, if one partner dies and does not leave a will, then the other will not legally be entitled to inherit from them regardless of the length of their relationship.

There are implications for parenthood too. Whereas married parents and unmarried mothers gain automatic parental responsibility of their child, unmarried fathers can only acquire parental responsibility by being present at the registration of the birth, getting a parental responsibility agreement from the mother, or a parental responsibility order from a court.

Why not extend civil partnerships for all?

The debate on civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples came to the fore in 2016 when Steinfeld and Keidan had their initial claim rejected by the High Court in England. Following a successful appeal, they have now brought their case to the UK Supreme Court, coinciding with the launch of a Private Members Bill to allow opposite-sex couples in England and Wales to form civil partnerships by Conservative MP Tim Loughton.

Steinfeld and Keidan have urged the Government to “stop making excuses”, referring to Cabinet reshuffles in the recent years that have led to u-turns on government pledges to allow heterosexual civil partnerships. Most recently, Ministers have been condemned for spending £65,000 on the “indefensible” court battle against civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples.

There are potential benefits of extending civil partnerships to all. The number of unmarried, heterosexual couples with children who split up is significantly higher than married couples – it could be that this is remedied, in part, by offering opposite-sex couples civil partnerships as a legal alternative to marriage.

The recent announcement of a Government review of civil partnerships has fuelled fears that they might be scrapped altogether. However, Equalities Minister, the Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, insists that the Government is “open minded on this matter”. If civil partnerships are scrapped, same-sex couples in civil partnerships could be forced to convert their union to a legal marriage.

The Government review, however, should consider whether there is any significant demand for opposite-sex and same-sex civil partnerships. Since the introduction of the Same Sex Couples Act, demand for civil partnerships has been in rapid decline. Between 2007 and 2013, an average of 6,305 civil partnerships were registered per year, but this dropped to just 890 in 2016. Many same-sex couples have also chosen to convert their civil partnerships into legal marriages.

Moreover, the extension of civil partnerships raises questions about the legal rights and treatment of other forms of relationships. For example, blood relatives who raise a child together could miss out on legal and financial benefits that will be granted to those couples who are married or in a civil partnership.

Conclusion

Steinfeld and Keidan’s campaign has increased the profile of the campaign for extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. The Government has now promised a review on whether civil partnerships should be extended, or scrapped altogether.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue