Supreme Court rules in favour of extending civil partnerships
Family law partner Tom Powles examines what the court’s decision on civil partnerships means for different sex and same sex couples.
The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favour of a couple challenging the rules on civil partnerships.
Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan sought a declaration that the law on civil partnerships, which same sex couples can form but opposite sex couples may not, was unjustifiably discriminatory and a breach of their rights.
The couple, who have two children, have a deep-seated personal opposition to the institution of marriage and the historical associations that come with it, but wish to have their long-term relationship recognised in law.
The only legal status available to heterosexual couples wishing to formalise their relationship is marriage. By contrast, gay and lesbian couples have the choice of whether to marry or form a civil partnership.
The Court held that the discrimination the couple were subject to (by being allowed access to marriage but not civil partnerships) was not justified by the government’s desire to ‘wait and see’ what the demand for civil partnerships was before deciding to abolish or extend them.
Have different sex civil partnerships been legalised?
No. The judgment doesn’t change the law by itself – but it seems likely that the Government will have to find a stop-gap measure quite quickly until a long-term solution is decided.
What could that long-term solution be? The two main options are either to abolish civil partnerships altogether going forwards, their original purpose having been superseded by same sex marriage, or to extend civil partnerships to different sex couples.
Abolishing civil partnerships could be a controversial move as it would remove a right from LGBT people which they currently enjoy. It’s highly unlikely that such a decision would be retroactive (so couples already in civil partnerships would not be affected) but it might be perceived as unfairly limiting choice for lesbian and gay couples.
What about extending civil partnerships, then? At first blush this looks relatively straightforward and, besides the possible administrative burden, unlikely to create too many complications.
We’ve written previously about the differences between same sex marriage and civil partnerships. If civil partnerships were to be extended to different sex couples, then lawmakers would have to decide whether those differences (such as provisions around adultery) would continue to apply.
Ultimately, whatever the Government decides to do, Parliament will need to have a say in any amendments to the law, so it may be some months before we know definitively what will happen to civil partnerships.
This judgment certainly adds to the urgency of finding a solution to the current imbalance in the law.