Couples in England and Wales will be able to choose between marriage and a civil partnership if they decide to formalise their relationships in the future. The move is a positive step in affording financial and legal protection for couples who want to formalise their relationship, but do not wish to commit to marriage.
In the UK, it is estimated that there are around 3.3 million cohabiting couples, half of whom have children. Many couples choose to cohabit either as a preliminary step towards marriage, or as an alternative to it, and despite marriage still being the favoured family form, cohabitation has become the benchmark for many first relationships.
The announcement follows the decision in Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for International Development (in substitution for the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary)  UKSC 32 in June 2018, in which the Supreme Court declared that sections 1 and 3 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 are incompatible with Articles 14 and 8 (prohibition on discrimination and the right to respect for private life) of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Whilst civil partnerships have been exclusively available to same-sex couples since 2005, the government now proposes to introduce legislation to open the door to heterosexual couples.
In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Scottish government has also launched a consultation on the possibility of extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
So what does this mean?
In short, unmarried couples are currently exposed to various financial and legal risks which include, but are not limited to, a lack of guaranteed rights to one another’s property, no automatic inheritance rights and uncertainty on occupational pension schemes which do not offer survivorship benefits.
Many cohabiting couples want both the legal and financial protection given by civil partnerships, but have not been able to benefit because they are not married and the choice of entering into a civil partnership was not available to them.
Allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships will not only provide them will an alternative avenue to marriage, but acts a positive step towards equality by ensuring that all couples, regardless of whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex, are given the same choices.
The decision on civil partnerships is the second significant family law move that the government has announced recently. Currently, the government is consulting on changes that would allow no-fault divorces for couples, where neither party is blamed for the breakdown in a marriage.
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