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Civil partnership for only same-sex couples is ‘discriminatory’

Private members bill receives cross-party support ahead of Commons debate

12 January 2017

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Allowing only same-sex couples to enter a civil partnership is ‘discriminatory’, family lawyers have said, ahead of a House of Commons debate on Friday.

Under the current law, mixed-sex couples do not have the option of forming a civil partnership, unlike same-sex couples who also have the right to marry.

Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, wants parity and is seeking to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 through a private member’s bill, which will be heard for the second time tomorrow.

Loughton’s bill has cross-party support from Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green MPs.

The legal rights and financial obligations are broadly the same for those who wish to marry or form a civil partnership, although adultery cannot be relied on to end a union.

Marilyn Stowe, senior partner at Stowe Family Law, said the current law on civil partnerships was ‘unfair’ and ‘discriminatory’.

‘To some couples, the concept of marriage is outdated. They do not wish to marry but equally seek a legally recognised civil union where vows and promises to each other are not required,’ she told Solicitors Journal.

‘There are also couples who wish to marry abroad, for example, in Europe, where a civil ceremony is also required alongside a religious ceremony. They do not wish to have two differing forms of marriage ceremony and would prefer a civil partnership to satisfy the legal requirement and a religious marriage.’

Nigel Shepherd, chair of Resolution and head of family law at Mills & Reeve, agreed and questioned whether civil partnership should be abolished.

‘If we retain civil partnership, Resolution considers it discriminatory not to offer it to same-sex couples,’ he said. ‘However, we don’t consider that there is any real benefit in retaining civil partnership as an option now we have marriage for same-sex couples.’

Change ahead?

After a review of civil partnership in 2014, the coalition government found that there was no united call for change with more than 7,500 respondents against opening up civil partnership to opposite sex couples.

However, since the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples in England and Wales in March 2014, the number of civil partnerships fell. In 2015, 861 civil partnerships were formed, while between 29 March 2014 and 30 June 2015 there were 7,366 marriages formed between same-sex couples.

In January 2016, a judicial review brought by Rebecca Steinfield and Charles Keidan challenged civil partnerships being only available to same-sex couples on the grounds of inequality.

The government argued that introducing legislation would be ‘costly and complex’ and raised concerns that civil partnerships may be phased out.

The challenge was dismissed but a subsequent online petition launched by Steinfeld and Keidan attracted 71,000 signatures in support of civil partnerships being available to all. Their case was heard in the Court of Appeal last November with judgment reserved.

In July 2016 the Isle of Man passed new laws enabling both same- and opposite-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships; the first same-sex civil partnership followed in October.

Julia Thackray, former head of the family team at Penningtons and programme leader at Central Law Training, said legislative change was a question of when, not if.

‘Making civil partnership available to straight couples is inevitable at some point. Whether it will be seen as a priority is another question. It hasn’t been seen as such so far, but eventually it will be too uncomfortable due to the disparity between same-sex and straight couples.’

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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Discrimination Marriage & Civil partnership

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civil partnership act 2004 tim loughton mp court of appeal High Court