Civil partnership vs marriage – the right to choose

21 May 2019

Following the recent announcement for divorce law reform in England and Wales, development with the law on civil partnerships also comes under the relationship spotlight.

On the 26 May 2019 the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 will come into force. This legislation amends the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and will allow opposite-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership in England and Wales. These regulations must be in force by 31 December 2019.

The history of civil partnerships

Civil Partnerships were originally created in 2004 to give same-sex couples the ability to commit to each other with similar legal and financial protection as in a marriage. This law developed further in 2013 when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act legalised same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Since then, same-sex couples have been able to choose between entering into a marriage or a civil partnership, but opposite sex couples have not enjoyed the same choice available to them.

In 2018 the Supreme Court had to consider a legal campaign from Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who sought permission to enter into a civil partnership. The Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition of heterosexual civil partnerships was discriminatory, and that the Civil Partnership Act was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which has spurred a change in the law.

What is the difference between a marriage and a civil partnership?

There are many subtle differences between the two institutions but some of the main ones are highlighted below:

1. Marriages are solemnized by saying a prescribed form of words, where as civil partnerships are registered by signing a document; no words are required to be spoken.

2. Marriages can be conducted through either a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony, whereas the formation of a civil partnership is entirely a civil event. A ceremony can be undertaken afterwards if the couple chooses this, but it is not part of the formation.

3. Marriage certificates include the names of only the fathers of the parties, whereas a civil partnership includes the names of both parents of the parties.

4. Currently, a marriage can be ended on the ground that the marriage has irretrievably broken down based on one of five facts, one of which is adultery, but this is not a finding that can be relied upon for the ending of a civil partnership. This is because the legal definition of adultery provides for sexual intercourse to have taken place with someone of the opposite sex outside of the marriage. This may however have to change following these reforms.

Which should we choose?

Some couples feel that the institution of marriage just isn’t right for them. There are historical connotations and traditions within a marriage ceremony, which may be unappealing. For Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, they indicated that they felt civil partnerships were a more modern and equal institution compared to marriage.

The ability to enter into a civil partnership may be a good option for couples that have been living together a long time but that do not wish to marry. Currently, many people believe in the notion of a ‘common law marriage’, in which they consider that living together a long time will afford them the same rights as a married couple, but this is not the case. It can be very upsetting on relationship breakdown or following the death of a partner to discover that they do not have the financial rights they anticipated they would have. Having the opportunity to enter into a civil partnership may offer these couples the protection they intend, without having to enter into marriage.

Essentially, we will be in a position where all couples will have the right to choose what is right for them.