Sarah Evans, Family lawyer at Coodes Solicitors, asks if a Supreme Court ruling could pave the way for heterosexual couples to have the option of civil partnerships.
The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of a heterosexual couple who fought for the right to have a civil partnership.
Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan won their legal battle after their plea was rejected by the Court of Appeal last year. The couple, who have two children, said they did not feel marriage was an option for them because it had “treated women as property for centuries.” I hope the Government will now respond with a change in legislation, offering civil partnership to all couples.
Why did the Supreme Court rule a heterosexual couple should have the right to a civil partnership?
I am not surprised the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights because it applies only to same-sex couples. It is clearly unacceptable to deny people access to certain laws because of their sexual preference. The Civil Partnerships Act 2004, and the introduction of same-sex marriage ten years later, gave gay and lesbian couples the chance to access the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. While this dealt with discrimination against same-sex couples, it seems perverse that in doing so it created inequality by denying heterosexual couples the same range of options.
I welcome the outcome because it could give those couples who do not feel marriage is right for them, for whatever reason, an alternative means of accessing legal protection.
Marriage: a tradition that is seen as archaic by some
Speaking as a married woman who chose to have a traditional wedding, I understand that marriage can be seen as rather archaic. After all, it is rooted in the tradition of a daughter being seen as a ‘chattel’, given from her father to another man. In the 21st century, women being given away by their fathers is an odd concept. While many now choose not to follow this convention in the wedding ceremony, marriage certificates still carry the bride’s father’s name and profession but not the mother’s. Interestingly, a Bill is now underway to address this, and it looks likely that both parents will appear on marriage certificates in the future. Despite that potential change, marriage will remain a centuries’ old tradition, though it is one that I feel is still relevant to many people.
The myth of common law marriage
If for whatever reason heterosexual couples are put off marriage, I very much hope they will consider a civil partnership, should it become an option in future. Living together has become very normal in our society, with an estimated three million cohabiting couples in the UK, but common law marriage is nothing but a myth. Recent statistics show that nearly half of Britons believe that unmarried couples possess the same rights as married couples. This is simply not true and there is no legislation to protect people who live together without being married or in a civil partnership. You have no automatic rights to your partner’s estate after their death, for example. I sometimes hear people say “We don’t need a piece of paper to say we’re in love.” In fact, you do need that piece of paper to access legal protection if you are cohabiting, especially if you own property or have children.
Could civil partnerships offer legal protection to more heterosexual couples?
Both marriage and civil partnerships are legal contracts, giving access to a very useful set of legislation. That includes legal and financial protection in the event of a relationship ending or the death of a spouse or partner, as well as inheritance and property rights. I believe there is room for both in modern society and, in the law changes, I can see more heterosexual couples opting for civil partnerships.
Many people who choose not to marry are shocked when they discover they are not entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as those who have formalised their relationship with a marriage or civil partnership. Conversely, many people get married without understanding the legal rights and responsibilities they are signing up to. While the wedding – with the dress, flowers and seating arrangements – can be a huge distraction, marriage is primarily a legal contract. When you marry someone, you sign up to certain rights and responsibilities as well as giving yourself access to legislation should things go wrong. The same, of course, is true of a civil partnership.
The law is simply not set up to deal with cohabiting couples, but I believe all couples should have the opportunity to formalise their relationship and access the same legal rights. It seems reasonable that people can sign up for the same rights and responsibilities, without having to enter into a centuries-old tradition. Whether we are talking about marriage or civil partnerships, heterosexual or same-sex couples, it comes down to equality. It is my great hope that civil partnerships are extended to all and that more couples will then choose to give their relationship legal status.
For more information or advice on any Family matters, contact Sarah Evans in the Family Team at Coodes Solicitors on 01579 347600 or email@example.com