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Civil partnerships for all? - An update

View profile for Julie Bennett
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Section 2 of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc) Act 2019 requires the government to make and bring into force regulations to extend civil partnerships to mixed sex couples by 31 December 2019.

Other countries, including South Africa, New Zealand and the Netherlands already allow mixed sex couples to choose either a civil partnership or a marriage, so this move has been welcomed by many in England and Wales. A civil partnership bill was also introduced in the Scottish parliament on 30 September 2019. If the bill is enacted, mixed sex couples will be able to be in a civil partnership in Scotland.

Civil partnerships were introduced for same sex couples in 2004. In 2013, the government enacted the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act which gave people in same sex relationships the choice of marriage or civil partnership. The view was that the number of civil partnerships would decrease as the option of marriage became available to same sex couples.

The Office for National Statistics published its latest annual statistics on the formation of civil partnerships on 11 October 2019. The statistics show that civil partnerships remain popular between same sex couples despite the introduction of marriage for same sex couples in 2013. The results show that there were 956 civil partnerships formed in England and Wales in 2018, this is an increase of 5.3% compared with 908 formations in 2017, and is 7.4% more than 890 formations in 2016.

So, why are same sex couples choosing civil partnerships rather than marriage?

From a legal standpoint, the civil partnership and marriage unions share the same legal rights in many areas of law, including: acquiring parental responsibility, child maintenance, inheritance tax, social security and tenancy rights. In respect of divorce and annulment of a civil partnership, the differences are minimal, the main point being that civil partnerships cannot be ended on the grounds of adultery, whereas marriages can.

Many argued that mixed sex couples whom are set against marriage are missing out on the legal protection provided for in a civil partnership, and are being discriminated against. Therefore, the introduction of civil partnerships for mixed sex couples will likely be welcomed.

One of the main incentives for mixed sex couples choosing a civil partnership is legal protection, without having to obtain the status of a ‘married couple’. The number of ‘deathbed weddings’ have also increased, suggesting that unmarried mixed sex couples are realising that without the legal protection of being married, any surviving partner cannot take advantage of the spousal inheritance tax allowance.

The introduction of legislation before 31 December, allowing mixed sex couples to choose a civil partnership rather than marriage, could cause civil partnership numbers to further increase in the near future.

There is also an intriguing possibility of couples having the right to convert from marriage to civil partnership. Although the reality of this is not yet clear, it could have a considerable effect upon the number of civil partnerships in England and Wales.

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