How do you solve a problem like Civil Partnerships?
The Prime Minister today has announced that the government will legislate to extend Civil Partnerships to heterosexual couples. So what does this mean?
The reason for Civil Partnerships
Civil Partnerships were introduced in 2005, and I remember it well. They were introduced because, before they were, people in a same sex relationship had next to no legal recognition of their relationship. This was serious stuff. On the breakdown of a marriage or on the death of a married spouse, a considerable body of law stepped in to provide remedies for both members of the divorcing couple or indeed for the bereaved spouse. That law simply did not apply if the couple were gay.
The arrival of Civil Partnerships
The gay community's tireless lobbying finally brought about a change. From 2005 a same sex couple could enter into a Civil Partnership. This meant that they had all the same legal remedies available to them as a married couple. This wasn't same-sex marriage, however. It involved a different ceremony and no religious connotations, but at least the law was there to protect them in precisely the same way as if they were a married couple. At the time, the government felt that society was not ready to contemplate extending the institution of marriage, lock, stock and barrel, to same sex couples.
The arrival of same sex marriage
This finally changed in 2014. Same sex couples could marry, just like their heterosexual equivalents. They could also convert their Civil Partnerships into marriages.
The problem for the government
Before same sex marriage, the position was pretty clear. If you were heterosexual you got your relationship legally recognised by marrying. If you were gay you did the same by entering into a Civil Partnership. In passing same sex marriage, the government created a problem for itself. What should it do with Civil Partnerships? On one view they were unnecessary; they were created because same sex marriage was not possible and now it was. This also created a bigger legal problem, as the government would come to discover, in that same sex couples could marry or have a Civil Partnership, whereas heterosexual couples could only marry because Civil Partnerships by law are precluded from heterosexual couples.
Enter the Supreme Court
There were already considerable murmurings about this apparent discrimination and one MP tried valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to extend Civil Partnerships to heterosexual couples in Parliament. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, however, took the battle to the courts. They were conscientious objectors to the institution of marriage but wanted legal recognition of their stable and lengthy relationship which had borne two children. On 27th June 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that this discrimination was unlawful being contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.
In fairness, the government accepted that it was discriminatory, but felt that the law would allow them time to assess what society really wanted to do with Civil Partnerships: do away with them, close them to new couples, extend them to heterosexual couples or leave everything as it was. The court did not agree.
The Prime Minister's announcement
No doubt in the wake of this decision, Theresa May has today announced that Civil Partnerships will be extended to heterosexual couples. She has not, however, indicated when this will take place. When it does, both same sex and heterosexual couples wanting to tie the knot will have the same choice: a marriage or a Civil Partnership. Whether this will mean much for the future of marriage or indeed of Civil Partnerships remains to be seen.