I heard an excellent interview on Monday night on the radio during the recent debate in the House of Commons about the Marriage (Same Sex) Couples Bill. The excited presenter was crossing between the House of Commons, to find out about the results of the voting, and the patient family lawyer in the studio,who was explaining to the presenter that, yes, civil partnerships provided the same legal rights as marriage. The interviewee explained that same sex civil partners are unable to present a divorce petition for adultery, and that the same restriction will be in place for same sex marriage, but that otherwise, the rights and consequences for couples entering those unions was the same. The presenter proceeded to check from every angle that marriage and civil partnership was the same but in name, and the solicitor confidently confirmed that this was the case.
Back in 2006 I wrote an article analysing the limitations of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. One of my main concerns about the government’s reluctance to label same sex union as marriage at the time was that the public might not be fully aware of the financial consequences of entering a civil partnership. More concerning was that because it had been given a different label, there was a lack of understanding in society that the couples entering civil partnerships were making a commitment of equal validity as those forming an opposite sex marriage.
I had a look over the draft bill today. The first line of that bill reads that “Marriage of same sex couples is lawful.” It still has to have safe passage through the House of Lords before it will be law, and will have its second reading there on 3 June, but if we hastily assume that the state of marriage, and the label of marriage, will now be available to all, where does that leave civil partnerships?
One of the potential amendments which was rejected by the Commons was to extend civil partnerships to opposite sex couples. The bill now reads that there must be a full public consultation on civil partnerships. After the radio presenter had finished concluding that civil partnerships were the same as marriage, he then took the opportunity to speak to opposite sex couples who did not want to marry but did want a civil partnership. The label, and the importance that society places on that label, mattered to these couples. They want a partnership and not a marriage.
The concerns that I raised back in 2006 about the difference in labelling between marriage and civil partnership have been addressed by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. It appears likely that it is this difference in name which will preserve for some couples the appeal of the partnership option over marriage. We will have to wait for the public consultation to determine what the future holds for the civil partnership.
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