23 March 2018
The UK government has resisted making a decision on the future of civil partnerships but the Court of Appeal has now told the government that time is running out. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan have campaigned since 2014 for a change in the law. On 21 February 2017 the Court of Appeal refused to allow their application for a judicial review of the government’s decision not extend the civil partnership regime to opposite-sex couples. To do so, the Court said, would be to micro-manage government policy and it was legitimate for the government to take time to make a proper assessment. However, the Court of Appeal made it clear that it was their unanimous view that the bar constituted a potential violation of their human rights under Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) and Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention.
The introduction of civil partnerships for same-sex couples in 2004 was one of the flagship reforms of the Labour government. The purpose was to give same-sex couples who registered their relationship as a civil partnership legal recognition and, consequently, a respected status in the eyes of the law and society as a whole. Civil partners were given virtually identical rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex couples entering into civil marriage. The government estimates of take up were far too low with almost five times the numbers forecast having entered into civil partnerships by 2010.
In 2012, David Cameron, then leader of the Coalition government, made a commitment to introduce equal marriage – an achievement he has since said was one of his career highlights. Marriage for same-sex couples was introduced in 2013 with the first same sex marriages taking place in 2014. Whilst there was significant objection during the passage of the Bill through Parliament that the promise that civil partnerships would not serve as a ‘stepping-stone’ to marriage had been broken, the move received support across the political parties.
However, the introduction of equal marriage left the government with a conundrum: what to do with the civil partnership regime? In January 2014 the results of the government’s review were published. Only a minority of the respondents to the consultation supported the abolition of civil partnerships. The majority were against closing the regime. Over three-quarters of the respondents were against opening up civil partnership to opposite-sex couples. The government’s conclusion? Sit tight and do nothing. The government preferred instead to wait and see how many same-sex couples were marrying versus entering into a civil partnership, and how many same-sex couples in a civil partnership were converting them to a marriage. Then, based on the statistics, a view could be formed about what to do.
What the government does in the wake of the Court of Appeal’s commentary remains to be seen. Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan have vowed to continue their legal fight. Perhaps the response to a new consultation on the future of civil partnerships would be different now there has been so much publicity of their case. Certainly there are hundreds of thousands of couples who cohabit with no protection at all in the event their relationship breaks down. If the introduction of opposite-sex civil partnerships, which do not have the associations of marriage (even if they have the same consequences), would encourage those couples to formalise their relationships that may be a good thing. But perhaps even better would be to reform the law in relation to cohabitation itself.