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Divorce law blog

Can an opposite sex couple enter into a civil partnership?

14/03/2017   By: Emma Noble


The Court of Appeal recently decided that, no, opposite sex couples cannot enter into a civil partnership. However, the judgment was far from clear cut and the decision adds to the growing pressure on the government to reform the law for unmarried couples on separation. 

An unintended consequence of introducing same-sex marriage in 2014 was that gay couples were left with two options to formalise their relationship: either marry or enter into a civil partnership. The rights and benefits of both are broadly the same. By contrast though, opposite-sex couples have only marriage open to them.

Two Londoners, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, challenged this loophole. They wanted to enter into a civil partnership but were prevented from doing so because they were an opposite-sex couple and the legislation clearly states that civil partnerships are only available to same-sex partners. And although all three judges in the Court of Appeal agreed with them that they were being treated differently because of their sexuality and that this had an impact on their private and family life (and so a potential violation of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights), the loophole remains. Why? Because two of the three judges concluded that the government should be allowed more time to make a decision on whether to extend civil partnerships to all couples or to scrape civil partnerships altogether now that same-sex marriage has been introduced. 

The government is living on borrowed time. To allow the current situation to continue indefinitely will be unlawful discrimination so a decision has to be made. We may yet see this case go to the Supreme Court and/or the European Court of Human Rights. We may see civil partnerships being scrapped altogether now that same-sex couples can marry. 

Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type but, whether straight or gay, they all suffer a real injustice in their lack of legal rights on relationship breakdown. Some couples, like Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, have ideological objections to getting married. Others mistakenly believe that living together for a long time and having children together means they have the same rights as a married couple. There is no such thing as a common law marriage. It is only marriage and civil partnership which offer protection and a fair outcome. 

The campaign to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples is strongly linked to the need to reform the law on relationship breakdown for unmarried couples. Reform has not been high on the government’s list of priorities for many years but cohabitees cannot go ignored for much longer.


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