The law on civil partnerships needs a serious rethink

BY Olivia Utley | OliviaBUtley   /  2 February 2018

Almost a year ago today, Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld lost their legal challenge to the government’s ongoing ban on mixed-sex civil partnerships. The defeat was narrow. All three judges on the case were critical of the status quo – whereby all couples have the right to marry, but only same-sex couples can form civil partnerships – and all agreed that in the long term, the quirky and unfair law needed changing. One of the three, Lady Justice Arden, believed that the appellants were right and should be granted a civil partnership then and there, but the other two outvoted her, concluding that the government should be given more time to make a decision.

One year on, and the debate has grown bitter. Buoyed up by their near success, Charles and Rebecca decided not only to take the battle to the supreme court (which they are doing in May) but also to try and secure a change in the law via a parliamentary bill. With the help of Tim Loughton MP, they succeeded in getting such a bill introduced. It was due to have its second reading in the Commons today, and Loughton was “confident” that it would get government support.

But yesterday, at the eleventh hour, the Home Office stepped in – and the bill has now been watered down to the extent that it is no longer recognisable. Instead of paving the way to heterosexual civil partnerships, it now simply calls for “the preparation of a report assessing how the law ought to be changed to bring about equality between same sex couples and other couples in terms of their future ability or otherwise to form a civil partnership”.

Or, put another way, a bit more stalling.

Loughton is furiously blaming the botched reshuffle on the U-turn (ex Women and Equalities Minister Justine Greening supported the change), and is threatening to force ministers – “kicking and screaming” – to reinstate his plans to extend civil partnerships to mixed-sex couples later in the bill’s passage through Parliament.

He is wrong to do so.

The diagnosis – that civil partnerships are a mess and need rethinking – is correct. They were rushed through Parliament in 2004 by a centrist Prime Minister who wanted to help the LGBT community, but didn’t have the guts (a year before an election) to start campaigning for equal marriage and invoke the wrath of the social conservatives. But Loughton’s prescription – that extending them to heterosexual romantically involved couples would solve the problem – is half-baked and misguided.

For a start, the appetite for them has been massively overplayed. Loughton’s argument that 3.3 million unmarried, cohabiting heterosexuals would “be helped” by the change – lazily assuming that everyone who isn’t married is, “for one reason or another”, opposed to marriage.

As a cohabitee myself, I can safely say that is not the case. Young people are more cautious about getting married than their parents, and 95% of millennials – who account for the vast majority of the 3.3 million – now live with their partners before tying the knot. They are not anti-marriage and pro civil partnership, they simply are not yet financially or emotionally ready to take the plunge.

More importantly, for a bill intending to promote families, stability, and equality, it is remarkably narrow in its definition of all three.

I was brought up by my mother and her sister in as a stable a unit as one could possibly imagine. I’ve never considered my aunt as anything other than a parent, and to anyone who knows us, the idea that we “aren’t a family” would seem absurd.

But the law says otherwise.

The sisters who raised me have no legal means by which to make their relationship official, meaning that they are exempt from the rights afforded to civil partners and married couples; most importantly the right to inherit a joint tenancy, and the right to pass on a jointly owned home to each other free of inheritance tax.

Same-sex partners – or even same-sex platonic friends – who wish to formalise their relationship have two methods of doing so (via a civil partnership or a civil marriage), straight couples have one (civil marriages) but committed, loving, financially interdependent cohabiting siblings don’t have any way at all. Although there is nothing in the law to dictate that civil partnerships must be between people in a sexual relationship, because the legislation was historically used as a proxy for same-sex marriage, cohabiting siblings remain exempt.

In 2018, equal marriage is not only legally recognised and celebrated. These days, romantically involved couples of all sexual orientations have the wonderful option of bringing up their children in a stable marital home – and, for them, civil partnerships are (and should be) obsolete.

There are over 15,000 UK families like mine, on the other hand, who are facing a true injustice every day.

If civil partnerships are to have a future – and the government has now bought itself some time to decide whether they should – it is these families who should be the beneficiaries. A 21st century “stable family” comes in all shapes and sizes, and it’s time that “modernising Conservatives” started recognising that.