By Demelza Patricio
The Prime Minister has announced that civil partnerships will be made available to heterosexual couples, following a Supreme Court judgment earlier this year that there was unlawful discrimination in the current regime.
What is a civil partnership?
Civil partnerships have been available to same sex couples since December 2005. At a time when same sex couples were unable to marry, civil partnership was introduced as a way of enabling those couples to show their commitment to each other and to have rights and responsibilities similar to those that married couples had.
Why is there now perceived to be discrimination?
Since March 2014 same sex couples have been able to marry. This means that same sex couples who wish to make a formal commitment to each other can choose whether to marry or enter into a civil partnership. However, under the present law, heterosexual couples only have the option to marry. At one point it was suggested that civil partnerships would be abolished once same sex couples were allowed to marry but that did not happen. To prevent discrimination the law is now being extended to enable heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage.
What is the difference between civil partnership and marriage?
Religious organisations are not required to agree to civil partnerships taking place in religious premises but whilst the ceremony may be religious, the actual formation of the civil partnership remains secular, whereas a marriage can be religious;
There is a prescribed form of words for a marriage ceremony whereas a civil partnership is registered by the signing of a civil partnership document. It is not necessary for words or “vows” to be spoken;
A marriage can be annulled if at the time of the marriage the respondent was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease but this is not a ground for annulling a civil partnership;
If a relationship breaks down, adultery can be relied on for the purposes of divorce proceedings but not for the dissolution of a civil partnership;
There is different terminology used in ending a relationship with divorce or dissolution proceedings taking place;
Financially, in the event of death or divorce/dissolution, there is no difference in the way that married couples and civil partners are treated.
It can therefore be seen that the differences between marriage and civil partnership are relatively minor.
Is this a great step forward in the law for unmarried heterosexual couples?
Not really! For those unmarried couples who wish to enter into a legal commitment which is very similar to marriage without actually being a marriage, clearly this is good news. However, many couples in cohabiting relationships (whether heterosexual or same sex) do not understand that they do not have the financial security offered by marriage or civil partnership in the event of the relationship breaking down. For other couples, one partner may simply refuse to get married or enter into a civil partnership because they do not wish to have financial responsibility for their partner, even if the relationship has been long and/or the couple have children together. Extending the civil partnership legislation does not benefit those couples.
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