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Civil Partnerships to be Extended to Mixed Sex Couples

Civil partnerships are to become available to mixed sex couples in England and Wales, it was announced by the Prime Minister this week. The change legislation will open the doors for every couple in England and Wales to be able to choose between a civil partnership and marriage as a means of formalising their relationship in the eyes of the law.

The government commented that the move will ‘protect the interests’ of mixed-sex couples and their families by offering a formal alternative to marriage, also ensuring that all couples are ‘given the same choices in life’.

The proposal to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples comes after a Supreme Court case in June, which ruled in favour of Rebecca Steinfeld and her partner Charles Keidan, who wanted to be allowed to have a civil partnership. Following the case, the Court said that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Although supporters claim that civil partnerships don’t come with the ‘baggage’ that marriage does, such as patriarchal associations, it is important to point out that the laws surrounding both types of union are actually very similar.

The legal rights concerning the inheritance of property and assets on death that come with marriage also come with civil partnerships. Also, just as with divorce from traditional marriage, if a civil partnership irretrievably breaks down, the grounds for formal dissolution are strict and the process can be very lengthy. Only in the following circumstances are you able to obtain a dissolution order:

  • a year has passed since you became civil partners and you are able to cite unreasonable behaviour,
  • 2 years’ desertion, 2 years’ separation,
  • 5 years’ separation.

At present, a civil partner cannot rely on the adultery of the other civil partner to begin the process of civil partnership dissolution.

Clearly, the law surrounding both marriage and civil partnerships is equally as rigid, and the seriousness of entering into a civil partnership shouldn’t be underestimated.

Although Mrs May’s announcement is a significant step forward – and one that campaigners in this area have welcomed with open arms – there is still more to be done to bring the laws surrounding marriage and divorce in line with modern ways of living.

For example, what about cohabiting couples, who currently have no legal rights in the eyes of the law? There are estimated to be 3.3 million unmarried couples in England and Wales, many of whom may not want to either get married or enter a civil partnership.  More widespread reform in this area of family law is well overdue.

No date has yet been announced as to when the new rules will take effect but it will be fascinating to see how much take up there is between mixed sex couples once they do.

For more advice on your rights as a married spouse, civil partner or unmarried cohabitee, or to discuss divorce, dissolution or separation, please get in touch.

Anthony Jones is Head of Family Law and is a Resolution Accredited Specialist. For more information or a second opinion please contact him on 01457 761320 or email [email protected].