A landmark verdict in the Supreme Court has seen a mixed-sex couple defeat the government on the issue of whether civil partnerships should be available as an alternative to mixed-sex marriage.
Civil partnerships were originally introduced at a time when same-sex marriage was not permitted, and aimed to give same-sex couples all of the legal rights, financial benefits and so on of marriage, without calling their union a ‘marriage’ – and therefore avoiding objections from religious groups and certain other parties.
The Civil Partnership Act 2004 officially came into effect on December 5th 2005, but less than a decade later it was followed by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which came into force from March 13th 2014.
Shortly after that time, a London couple, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, launched their claim that they should be entitled to enter into a mixed-sex civil partnership as they object to some of the traditional connotations of marriage.
Civil partnerships – should they stay or should they go?
The government’s resistance to allowing mixed-sex civil partnerships stems from indecision over whether they will continue to exist as an option for same-sex couples in the years to come.
With the introduction of same-sex marriage, the government recognised the inequality of giving same-sex couples two options, but mixed-sex couples only one; however, they claimed to be undecided over whether to extend civil partnerships to all, or phase out or abolish them completely instead.
Previous consultations had failed to find a consensus opinion on the best option, leading the government to adopt what has been termed a ‘wait and see’ attitude in the hope of more concrete evidence to come.
But in the Supreme Court, Lord Kerr ruled that the government displayed “an attitude of some insouciance” by opting not to act to close the inequality at this time, despite having completed an inconclusive consultation on the matter.
No reason to delay
Lord Kerr’s ruling, dated June 27th 2018, states that there was no good reason for the government to delay closing the inequality at the time that same-sex marriage became an option – either by deferring that option until a solution to the inequality was found, or by immediately abolishing civil partnerships, or by extending them to include mixed-sex couples as well.
He concluded that the current position is clearly unequal and that, by specifically excluding different-sex couples, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is incompatible with Article 14, the prohibition of discrimination, in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
The verdict was welcomed by LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell, who tweeted: “Yes! UK Supreme Court rules for equal civil partnerships. Heterosexual equality at last! Discrimination looks set to end. Government must now legislate to open civil partnerships to straight couples, not just to same-sex ones.”
Equal access to civil partnerships
For many young people, the issue is not one of equality necessarily, but also one of access to what has become a recognised alternative to traditional marriage, with all of the legal and financial benefits, but without connotations of religion, patriarchy, or various other objections.
With equal access to civil partnership, couples can protect their shared assets and finances, allowing them to pass to the surviving spouse on their partner’s death, while also making a legally recognised declaration of their intention to stay together for life – regardless of their sexuality or gender.
The relatively new institution is also equally as binding as marriage – with the same rules applying to dissolving a civil partnership as those that decide when a divorce may be granted from a marriage.
It now remains to be seen what action the government will take to ensure this remaining inequality is closed promptly, which seems likely to mean the introduction of mixed-sex civil partnerships, rather than abolishing the option for same-sex couples.