11th Sep 2019

Are heterosexual Civil Partnerships a game changer?

The Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Bill received royal assent on 26 March 2019.  Despite making earlier headlines, there was little news on the day; we may have been somewhat pre-occupied with other political matters… 

A quick history lesson

Coming into force on 26 May 2019, the headline is that couples who aren’t the same sex will soon be allowed to enter into civil partnerships.   [The final step in the process is regulations by the Secretary of State and these have to be done by 31.12.2019 – it will be a very happy new year for some!]   

What does this mean? That’s a good question!  And it involves a quick history lesson:

  • Until 2004 Only mixed-sex/heterosexual couples able to marry in England and Wales.  No formal recognition of same sex couples.
  • From 2004 Civil Partnership Act 2004 enables same sex couples to enter into a formal, legally-recognised relationship (a Civil Partnership).
  • March 2014 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 - gives same sex couples in England and Wales the right to marry.
  • December 2014 Marriage of Same Sex Couples (Conversion of Civil Partnership) Regulations 2014 – same sex couples who had entered into a civil partnership previously could now convert this to marriage.
  • May 2019 Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc.) Act – allows mixed-sex/heterosexual couples to choose a Civil Partnership as an alternative to marriage.

Yes, but what does this actually mean?

Well, first we need the regulations so that heterosexual civil partnerships can actually happen – watch this space, we will keep you posted.  As and when its possible, for some people it’s very much the happy end to a long journey of campaigning.  The opportunities are now exactly the same for all; gay or straight you can now choose to be married or civil partners.  

In the year of the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, is this another ‘giant step for mankind’?  Time will tell – I’m not yet convinced. The initial reason for civil partnerships (2004) was that there was no recognition of same sex relationships. Although called “civil partnership” the rights and responsibilities under same-sex civil partnership was broadly akin to a heterosexual marriage. With the advent of same sex marriage (2014) could civil partnerships not have been canned at that stage? There is already an option for former same-sex civil partnerships to be converted to same-sex marriages, which has been widely adopted and used by most.

What seems to me to have happened is the wording of “civil partnership” has been latched onto as some sort of legal recognition of committed, heterosexual relationships, (but which is not marriage) for those who don’t want to enter into a “marriage” for their strongly held belief that it’s not for them. However, if you enter into a civil partnership you are still choosing to put your relationship on a formal footing, for which much of the rights and responsibilities are broadly the same as marriage anyway.

After practising in Family Law for the last quarter of a century, I understand that the law does not sufficiently protect cohabitees and reform is desperately needed in that area. However, I also worry that some cohabitees will have a misplaced belief that they are now protected and they are “civil partners” although they never enter into a formal civil partnership.

It’s a really tricky area. Resolution has done much about raising awareness and campaigning in this area. I’m glad I’m not a law-maker and so I make these comments not having all the answers.  Progress?  Perhaps - but when the bells chime to bring in 2020 and same-sex civil partnerships, I don’t see it being another “Neil Armstrong moment”.


Sarah Smith is Yorkshire's only Eminent Practitioner in Family Law and has over 25 years' experience in supporting families and individuals. 

To discuss how Sarah and Berwins' expert Family Law team can help you, call 01423 543 108 or use our online contact form.

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