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Equal rights for same-sex and opposite-sex couples

View profile for Karen Johnson
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Equal rights for same-sex and opposite-sex couples

On 5 November 2019, in one of its final acts before being dissolved in advance of the forthcoming General Election, the House of Lords approved secondary legislation giving opposite-sex couples the right to enter into civil partnerships.

Civil partnerships were first introduced in 2004 in order to provide an opportunity for couples in a same-sex relationship to have their relationship legally recognised. With that, they enjoy generally the same financial benefits and security that the law affords to married couples.

The options available to same-sex partnerships were then extended in 2013 to allow those in same-sex relationships to be married.

The result of these changes in the law meant that same-sex couples had a choice as to whether to simply cohabit, enter into a civil partnership, or marry. Opposite-sex couples could only cohabit or marry.

Why does it matter if opposite-sex couples cannot enter a civil partnership?

Given that civil partnership affords much the same rights and responsibilities as marriage, asking why it matters seems a sensible question. The answer is that people should have the choice of whether to have their relationship legally recognised or not. They should also have the choice as to how it should be recognised. Most importantly, they should have the same choices regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

In the UK, there are some 3 million opposite-sex couples who cohabit and choose not to marry. Those couples support a million children. The current laws of England and Wales provide little to no protection to cohabitants and there is no such thing as a common-law husband or wife.

The couples who choose not to marry, make that choice for a wide variety of personal reasons. They may not wish to marry because of the religious connotations or because they hold differing religious beliefs. Another example may be where a person has previously been married and had a bad experience.

These reasons do not, however, mean that they are less committed to each other. They may still want to have legal recognition of their committed relationship and to enjoy the rights, responsibilities and protection afforded by that legal recognition.

The change in the law will now mean that opposite-sex couples will now have the same choice as same-sex couples as to how they wish their relationship to be legally recognised.

The regulations will take effect from the 2 December 2019. At which point, it will be possible for opposite-sex couples to give their 28 days’ notice. The first civil partnership ceremonies will be possible from the 31 December 2019.

Legislation regarding children and parenthood

The regulations also amend legislation regarding children and parenthood. This provides those in opposite-sex civil partnerships with generally the same rights as opposite-sex married parents. It also amends the Gender Recognition Act 2004, allowing people to obtain a full gender recognition certificate without having to dissolve their civil partnership, so long as their partner consents, which is already the case for married couples.

There is, however, one further issue which has yet to be addressed. That is the right for opposite-sex civil partners to convert their civil partnership to marriage in the same way that same-sex civil partners can.

The need for this provision for same-sex civil partners was because there were many that entered into a civil partnership before same-sex marriage was legalised. If not allowed, it would have required the couple to dissolve their civil partnership (i.e. divorce) before they could marry.

It may be difficult to anticipate circumstances where, having had the choice to get married or enter a civil partnership, a couple enters a civil partnership but then wants to be married. However, true equality can only exist if the law offers the same options to all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Whilst Parliament has been dissolved ahead of the forthcoming general election, it is understood to have promised that this is an issue to be addressed in the near future.

If you are in a same-sex or opposite-sex couple and would like advice about your rights, our team of specialist family lawyers offer a free, no obligation 15 minute telephone conversation to see how we can help you.

I am a family solicitor based in our Colchester office and can be contacted on 01206 217305 or karen.johnson@birkettlong.co.uk.

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