To put it very simply, under current law in England, heterosexual couples can either get married, or remain unmarried, whereas same-sex couples have a third option, civil partnership.
Civil partnerships were originally conceived as an ‘equivalent’ to marriage for same-sex couples at a time when they were not legally able to get married, but following a subsequent change in the law, both options became legally available to them, whereas mixed-sex couples have never been given the option of civil partnership.
For some mixed-sex couples, the arguments in favour of civil partnership are the same as the arguments that were made against allowing gay marriage, for example the historic religious connection with the institution of marriage, and there are many other personal reasons why people don’t want to get married too.
But when an unmarried mixed-sex couple separate, even if they have been living together, there are no specific provisions in the law to determine the separation of finances or child custody and visitation rights, despite many people still believing that long-term cohabitation makes you ‘common law’ husband and wife.
Many couples – particularly those who do not follow any of the major religions – want to be allowed to enter into a civil partnership to gain the relevant legal protections, without the additional connotations of marriage.
So how likely is this to happen? Originally the government’s response was more or less a flat ‘no’, but with over 70,000 members of the public signing a petition by the campaign group Equal Civil Partnerships and growing cross-party support in Parliament, a Bill to allow mixed-sex civil partnerships seems likely to pass quite soon.
The Bill is next due for Parliamentary debate on March 24th 2017, and only failed to reach a vote on January 13th because the debate lasted so long, with so many contributions from MPs, that the House ran out of time for a vote.
In the meantime, unmarried couples who choose to separate face an uncertain legal situation, and one in which mediation can be particularly helpful in deciding how to divide money, assets and custody rights, when there is a gap in the law surrounding these issues.
With no legal guidelines to fall back on, it can be much more likely to hit an impasse, and a mediator can be crucial in getting things back on track and making swift progress towards a mutually agreeable outcome – especially in cases involving dependants whose welfare and happiness are at stake.
It may seem unfair that same-sex couples have access to more options for legal protection in long-term relationships, but until the Government is able to pass the Bill to restore equality to the marriage and civil partnership landscape for all couples, mediators will continue to work hard to achieve the best possible outcomes for separating couples, regardless of your marriage, civil partnership or ‘common law’ status.