Civil partnerships to be opened up to mixed-sex couples

Last week Theresa May announced that the government intends to bring in legislation so that civil partnerships in England and Wales become available to mixed-sex couples as well as same-sex couples. What does this mean for cohabiting couples and why would a couple choose a civil partnership over a marriage?

Civil partnerships are currently only available to same-sex couples. They were originally introduced to give same-sex couples an option for a formalised legal framework to reflect their relationship as same-sex marriage was not available. Then same-sex marriage came along and we were left in the rather unusual situation where a same-sex couple had the option of either a civil partnership or marriage, but a mixed-sex couple could only get married. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declared that this situation was incompatible with human rights legislation so the government had to take action.

In legal terms, there are no real differences between those in a civil partnership and those who are married. Both marriage and civil partnership give the same rights and duties, both during the relationship and if it breaks down. The real difference is more one of public perception. Some couples do not want to get married because of the religious overtones of that status, others are concerned by the old fashioned or patriarchal connotations of marriage. Civil partnership can therefore be a pathway for a couple to have legal recognition for their relationship, and give each other the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage, but without the marriage label or connotations.

Whilst the extension of civil partnership to mixed-sex couples may well encourage some cohabiting couples who do not want to marry to enter into civil partnerships, this change in the law will do nothing to protect those who are in cohabiting relationships without any formal legal recognition of their relationship. Concerns still remain that many cohabiting couples who are neither married or in a civil partnership mistakenly believe that they have rights against each other arising out of some sort of “common law spouse” law, which simply does not exist.

Our specialist family lawyers have lots of experience on advising cohabiting couples at all stages of their relationship, busting the common law marriage myth. If you need further advice get in touch using our dedicated hotline.

Caitlin Jenkins and Katherine Kennedy