Restricting Civil Partnerships to Same-Sex Couples Breaches Human Rights

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that the UK Government’s ban on civil partnerships for different-sex couples in England and Wales is discriminatory and in breach of human rights.

Case Background

The case had been brought by a couple who are in a heterosexual relationship that they want to formalise. They have ideological objections to the institution of marriage and instead sought the right to enter into a civil partnership.

However, when the Government introduced the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (CPA), it only applied to same-sex couples. Several years later, the Government gave same-sex couples the right to marry under the Marriage (Same Sex couples) Act 2013 (MSSCA) but chose not to repeal the CPA, which meant that same-sex couples have the choice of two options to formalise their relationship – marriage or civil partnership. However, different-sex couples only have the option of marriage.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan therefore sought a judicial review of the Government’s continuing decision not to make changes to the CPA to allow different-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships. Their claim made its way to the Supreme Court, after being dismissed by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

The case hinged on whether the couple’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and in particular their rights under article 14 (the prohibition on discrimination) together with article 8 (the right to respect for private life), were being breached by the ban on them entering into a civil partnership.

Supreme Court Judgment

In its judgment, the Supreme Court noted that the Government has accepted that there was an inequality of treatment between same-sex and heterosexual couples, and that this inequality engages article 14 read in conjunction with article 8 of the ECHR. The Government also accepts that the inequality therefore requires justification from the date it first began (ie. on the coming into force of the MSSCA).

The principal issue before the Supreme Court was therefore whether justification of the inequality includes consideration of the period of time during which the respondent could investigate how best to eliminate the inequality or whether the justification must be directed exclusively to the very existence of the discrimination.

It has now made a declaration that sections 1 and 3 of the CPA, to the extent that they preclude a different-sex couple from entering into a civil partnership, are incompatible with article 14 taken in conjunction with article 8 of the ECHR.

It is worth highlighting that a declaration of incompatibility does not oblige the Government or Parliament to take any action. However, the judgment is likely to add to growing pressure on the Government to change the current law.

Reaction to the Ruling

The Supreme Court’s judgment has been welcomed by organisations with an interest in family law.

Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive at relationship support charity, Relate said:

“The law has failed to keep up with societal need when it comes to our rights around relationships. The Supreme Court’s ruling on civil partnerships is a step in the right direction and will put pressure on the government to change the law but what we need is a review of our whole legal system.

“It’s astonishing that in 2018 we still have a fault-based divorce system which encourages inter-parental conflict and that cohabiting couples have so few legal rights. The way we structure our relationships is changing and if we want our legal system to be truly fair and equal these issues also need to be addressed.”

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Statistics Reveal Fall in Marriage Numbers

The Office for National Statistics has published its Marriages in England and Wales: 2015 bulletin, which gives details on the number of marriages that took place in England and Wales analysed by age, sex, previous marital status and civil or religious ceremony.

Key statistics revealed in the report include:

  • There were 239,020 marriages between opposite-sex couples in 2015, a decrease of 3.4% from 2014 when there 247,372 marriages, and 0.8% lower than in 2013.
  • Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples in 2015 were the lowest on record, with 21.7 marriages per thousand unmarried men and 19.8 marriages per thousand unmarried women.
  • Compared with 2005, marriage rates for opposite-sex couples marrying in 2015 were lower at all ages, except for men aged 65 and over and women aged 55 and over, where marriage rates increased.
  • In 2015 there were 6,493 marriages between same-sex couples, 56% were between female couples; a further 9,156 same-sex couples converted their civil partnership into a marriage.
  • In 2015, civil ceremonies among opposite-sex couples decreased by 1.6%, while religious ceremonies decreased by 8.0% compared with 2014.
  • In 2015, of all individuals marrying a same-sex partner, 85% were forming their first legally recognised partnership compared with 76% for opposite-sex couples.

“Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples are now at their lowest level on record following a gradual long-term decline since the early 1970s,” commented an ONS spokesperson. “The number of marriages between opposite-sex couples decreased by 3.4% in 2015, compared with 2014.”

“Despite this overall decline, marriages at older ages rose; the number of weddings increased for men aged 50 and over and women aged 35 to 39 years and 45 and over,” she said. “This is the first full year for which marriages were available for same-sex couples and they accounted for 2.6% of all marriages.”

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For expert legal advice on family law issues, including marriage and civil partnership, then contact our specialist family lawyers today.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

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ONS Figures Give Insight into Civil Partnership Formation

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published statistics giving an interesting insight into the take up of civil partnership in England and Wales during 2016.

According to the figures, there were 890 civil partnerships formed, which is an increase of 3.4% compared with 2015. This is apparently the first time civil partnership numbers have increased since the introduction of same-sex marriage was announced in 2013.

Statistical Highlights

The figures also show that:

  • More than two-thirds (68%) of all civil partnerships formed in 2016 were between men, the highest proportion since their introduction in 2005.
  • The age distribution of those forming civil partnerships has changed since the introduction of same-sex marraige in 2014. Almost half (49%) of those entering a civil partnership in 2016 were aged 50 and over, up from 48% in 2015. Prior to the introduction of marriages of same-sex couples this figure was only 19% (2013). There has also been a noticeable increase in the percentage of individuals forming a civil partnership at ages 65 and over (19% in 2016 compared with 4.0% in 2013).
  • The increased percentage of civil partnerships formed by those aged 50 and over has resulted in a rise in the average age at civil partnership formation. In 2016, for the second consecutive year, the average age of women forming a civil partnership (49.9 years) was higher than men (48.6 years). The difference between the average age at civil partnership formation for men and women has also increased in 2016.
  • London continued to be the most popular region for the formation of civil partnerships; 38% of all formations in England and Wales in 2016 occurred in London.
  • There were 1,313 civil partnership dissolutions granted in England and Wales in 2016, of these 60% were to female couples.

ONS Comment

“Following legislative change enabling marriages of same-sex couples from March 2014, civil partnership formations declined as the majority of same-sex couples opted for marriage instead,” commented Nicola Haines from the ONS. “However, 2016 represents the first increase in civil partnership formations since this change, showing that a minority of same-sex couples still prefer this option to marriage. Interestingly, male couples accounted for 68% of all civil partnerships in 2016, however, our latest marriage statistics show that male couples accounted for only 44% of all marriages formed between same sex-couples in 2014.”

Reaction of Relate

Relationship support charity Relate was one of several family-related organisations to comment on the latest statistics.

“It’s interesting that we’re now seeing an increase in civil partnerships for the first time since same-sex marriage was introduced in 2014,” said Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive at Relate. “These figures demonstrate that whilst marriage is now the preferred option for most same-sex couples, civil partnership feels more relevant for some.”

“It’s vital that our legal system adapts to reflect the society we live in and Relate celebrates the fact that same-sex couples now have the option to publically show their commitment in a way that suits them,” he added. “Of course, many couples, regardless of sexual orientation, are choosing to cohabit rather than legally recognise their commitment. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the relationship which really matters to people’s overall wellbeing, which is why investing in our relationships is so important.”

Contact Us

For expert legal advice on civil partnership and other areas of family law, then contact our specialist family solicitors today.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

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