What are civil partnerships?

Until just a few years ago, civil partnerships had a very clear role. They provided a way for committed same sex couples to formalise their relationships in a legal union very similar to marriage.

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 was created in recognition of the increasing social acceptance of same sex relationships, while recognising that many traditional and religious people still remained opposed to the idea of full marriage for such couples. But public opinion continued to shift and same sex marriage finally arrived less than a decade later. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 received royal assent in July 2013, with the first marriages taking place the following March.

The introduction of same sex marriage was welcomed by the majority but it nevertheless removed the central purpose of civil partnerships. Many same sex couples took advantage of the option to convert their relationships into full marriage, deepening the perception that civil partnerships were a halfway house that served no further function. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, until their abolition.

The government took the path of least resistance, however, and left them in place, but only for same sex couples: a decision that was, perhaps, guaranteed to cause controversy. Determined London couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan felt so strongly about the issue that they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, insisting that civil partnerships was more egalitarian than traditional marriage. The country’s highest court ruled in their favour in June last year, saying the exclusion of opposite sex couples was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The government currently has until the end of 2019 to issue regulations extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. While we wait for these, let’s take a look at just what makes civil partnerships different to traditional marriage.

The answer is: not much! Firstly, as the name clearly suggests, civil partnerships are entirely civil affairs which come into effect as soon as the documents are signed. There is no need for any kind of ceremony to mark the event or for vows to be exchanged, as there is in marriage. Of course, many couples entering civil partnerships chose to hold ceremonies anyway, because they wanted to enjoy the occasion and celebrate with friends and family.

The ‘dissolution’ procedure for ending a civil partnership is very similar to divorce but there are some differences in the terminology used. Instead of a decree nisi and decree absolute, civil partners apply for more straightforward ‘conditional’ and ‘final’ orders. In addition, adultery cannot be cited as a reason for seeking dissolution as adultery is legally defined as sexual relations between a man and woman when one or both are married to other people.

Civil partnerships are not recognised in some countries and this can cause problems for couples who are travelling or planning to emigrate. Careful research and planning is advisable.

All other rights are pretty much indistinguishable – including benefits, tenancy, insurance and parental responsibility.

Time will tell how many heterosexual couples become civil partnerships when that option eventually becomes available. With many centuries of tradition behind it, marriage comes with a basketful of familiar trappings and customs, which many people love. But as we have seen, others prefer the egalitarian modernity of civil partnerships.

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