12 Days of Christmas Family Special – Keeping it civil in the New Year

Posted on: December 30th, 2019

I feel that it is somewhat apt to be writing this particular piece, having engaged in a heated debate on Christmas Day about equality and why it matters (a lawyer is always a lawyer, even when dressed as an elf). So here I am, at the end of the decade, pleased to be announcing that as of tomorrow we have further progression on the equality front. Because from 31st December 2019, heterosexual couples in England and Wales can enter into a civil partnership, as an alternative to getting married.

Until now, only same sex couples have been able to enter into a civil partnership in England and Wales. Those in a civil partnership benefit from the same rights as married couples in terms of tax benefits, pensions and inheritance. By contrast, co-habiting couples who have not entered into a marriage or civil partnership do not have the same financial protection by law. Over 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK have chosen not to tie the knot. When considering why, it is important to reflect upon the (arguably) patriarchal, conservative and religious constructs of many marriage ceremonies; the dress, the father ‘giving away’ the bride, the church/place of worship, the vows to ‘obey’ one’s husband. Although a lot of people still enjoy and support these traditions, there are also many who feel that the ceremonial act of ‘marriage’ does not reflect their own values and beliefs.

Such were the concerns of Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfield, who brought their battle to make mixed sex civil partnerships legal all the way to the Supreme Court back in 2018.

The couple’s lawyers argued that Section 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (permitting only same sex couples to enter into a Civil Partnership) was incompatible with Article 14 (read with Article 8) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that ‘everyone should be treated equally by law, regardless of sex or sexual orientation’. These Convention rights are currently incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

Mr Keidan remarked that the ‘legacy of marriage’ which ‘treated women as property for centuries’ was not acceptable to them and that civil partnership was a ‘modern, symmetrical institution’.

On considering their legal challenge, the Court agreed with their position, but unfortunately the government was busy with other matters (I cannot think what) and didn’t have the time or inclination to change the law back in 2018.

Finally though, we have progress. We are about to enter into an exciting new era of change when it comes to marriage and civil partnership. As a family lawyer, I see this leap towards equality as a hugely positive outcome. In my view, it is not the case that the Court has ‘devalued’ or ‘thrown out’ the concept of marriage – it has simply offered us more choice so that we can apply our own personal principles, whilst still being afforded the protection of the law.

The differences between cohabitation, civil partnership and marriage can raise many legal questions. If you would like practical and straightforward advice on all types of family law matters or have any questions, please contact Marie Stock, Senior Associate or complete our enquiry form below.