This article was first published in Private Client Adviser on 26 February 2016 and is reproduced by kind permission.
A civil partnership for heterosexual couples will not undermine the institution of marriage. It will stop people who do not believe in it from entering into one and developing a tick-box marriage.
A recent High Court decision has confirmed that heterosexual couples cannot enter into a civil partnership, unlike same-sex couples who have the option to either enter into a civil marriage or a civil partnership.
Rebecca Steinfield and Charles Kiedan’s argument, that this disparity between same-sex and opposite-sex couples was discriminatory, was rejected by the High Court. The court found that heterosexual couples were ‘not disadvantaged’ by the legal position as they were able to marry, affording them the same legal rights as a civil partnership.
Notwithstanding this decision and reasoning behind it, it is interesting to examine why it is such an issue for either side of the debate. Why is it so important for heterosexual couples to be able to form civil partnerships and equally, why has the government been so reluctant to make them available in this way?
The argument ‘for’ legislative change in this area is seemingly underpinned by the fact that many people do not want to associate themselves with the sexist or religious overtones associated with being married. Conversely, the main argument ‘against’ to date has been that it will in some way undermine the sacred institution of marriage, by creating something that could be seen to entail a lesser degree of commitment in comparison.
Leaving aside any exploration of whether civil partnerships are viewed as being or are actually somehow more flimsy and fragile than marriage, this supposed infallibility of marriage’s strength is fairly questionable. With an estimated 42 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, can it really be argued that it has an inherent stability we must preserve?
Ultimately, a degree of relationship breakdown can be seen as an inevitable occurrence, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t. Making sure people have legal protection for when it does happen is therefore the crucial issue. If making civil partnerships an option available to heterosexual couples would encourage some of those people to afford themselves that protection, then it is a legislative change that should be adopted.
Furthermore, and as I have said before, I believe that people should be encouraged to take their commitment to a life together seriously, and arguably part of that is being able to give people the flexibility to choose how their commitment towards one another looks.
This surely will encourage people to consider the choice they are making, as opposed to seeing the progression of a relationship as a tick-box exercise; something I strongly feel is prevalent and intrinsically engrained within our society.
Undoubtedly, reform seems a perfect solution to those couples (gay or straight) who for ideological reasons or otherwise, wish to have their relationship legally recognised, but do not wish to be married.
As opposed to somehow undermining the institution of marriage, such change would arguably provide legal recognition of the fact that marriage is no longer viewed in the same way, society has moved on and as such, marriage has in a way undermined itself through the perpetuation of increasingly outdated notions many people simply do not buy into.
Civil partnerships do reflect and embody the notion of equality much more than marriage does. As such, legislative change would recognise a reality of modern day and specifically modern family life – something the law often struggles to do.