22nd Feb 2017

Are Civil Partnerships the Answer to Cohabitation Reform Calls?

The latest ruling from the Court of Appeal has seen a heterosexual couple lose their battle to be allowed to enter into a Civil Partnership rather than marry.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan had first sought a Civil Partnership in 2014, feeling that ‘marriage’ was not for them. Denied, they have embarked on a legal challenge to equalise current rights of heterosexual couples with same sex couples, that is the right to choose to enter into either marriage or civil partnership - a choice which has been available to same sex couples since March 2014 when the Same Sex Couples Marriage Act came in to force in England and Wales.


Legally Recognised Union

At the heart of the Steinfeld and Keidan case sits the question of the status of Civil Partnerships. The 2004 Civil Partnership Act was introduced for same sex couples to enter into a formal agreement akin to marriage and, indeed, which would give them many of the same rights as marriage, including what would happen if the relationship broke down. Legally, many of the structures are the same

From inception, Civil Partnerships were designed as a formal, public acknowledgement of a lifelong commitment between two people. While the reasons for differing classification to marriage are many and complex, they are mostly historic. Some differences exist – for instance, civil partners cannot call themselves ‘married’ for legal purposes and adultery cannot be used as a reason to dissolve the Civil Partnership, but ultimately Civil Partnerships were meant to be marriage really in all but name.



The position changed with the introduction of same sex marriage in 2014 which allows same sex couples to marry (or convert an earlier civil partnership into a marriage). In theory, a same sex couple now has a choice; civil partnership or marriage. The Court of  Appeal has now told Steinfeld and Keidan that they and thousands of other cohabiting heterosexual couples that they do not. As the judges have highlighted, the current situation does present an inequality issue and this needs to be addressed.  

What is sought is a formal recognition of heterosexual couples outside of marriage - the commitment without the label and the law that goes with it. Society is changing and some cohabiting heterosexual couples say they want an alternative to marriage but with some formal recognition.  As family lawyers, we agree that protection is needed, but are Civil Partnerships the answer?


Cohabitation Rights

The number of couples opting to cohabit, rather than marry is on the rise and now accounts for some 17% of all UK families. It is these couples who need legal protection and Civil Partnerships, which are ostensibly intended to operate as marriage may not be the answer.  

What difference is there really between a Civil Partnership and a marriage? Only a name? Civil Partnerships in their current form may not be the answer but we do need a solution for couples who chose to spend their lives together, often with children, without entering into marriage.

We recently saw Denise Brewster win her fight to benefit from her late partner’s pension. Milestone cases are happening.  The Court of Appeal is unlikely to be the last we see of Steinfeld and Keidan, nor the end of this very real issue and need for reform.

Sharing their thoughts on the latest legal ruling was Sarah Smith, an Eminent Practitioner in Family Law and head of Berwins' Family Team.

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