Civil Partnerships vs. Marriage – the face of modern day relationships and why reform is needed

November 3, 2017

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In this blog, associate Carla Ditz looks at the latest statistics on civil partnerships released by the Office for National Statistics and considers what this shows us about modern day relationships.

New figures released by the ONS reveal that the number of same-sex couples entering into civil partnerships increased by 3.4% in 2016. This represents the first annual increase since same-sex marriage became possible in March 2014 following the enactment of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.  Further, nearly half (49%) of those entering a civil partnership in 2016 were aged 50 or above. So what might these figures show within the overall context of modern day relationships?

Civil Partnerships vs. Marriage

The face of the ‘modern family’ has been in transition for some time. Same-sex couples have been able to enter into a civil partnership in the UK since December 2005. Nine years then passed until same sex couples could marry including converting their civil partnerships into marriages. This marked one of the biggest sea changes in family law as well as a moment of profound importance for the gay community.

What became less obvious to the wider world is the reverse discrimination that some opposite-sex couples have since felt by dint of the fact that they are unable to enter into civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage. This sentiment gained attention and indeed momentum when Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan sought to challenge the government on this very point in December 2014. Nearly 3 years on, in August 2017, the couple have been granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. A link to the most recent news item on our website can be found here.

With a rise in the number of couples choosing to cohabit rather than marry, it would seem that the law is falling behind changes in societal attitudes. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan feel that a civil partnership is more representative of how they live their lives. They say that a civil partnership “captures the essence of our relationship and values. Civil partnerships are a modern social institution conferring almost identical legal rights and responsibilities as marriage, but without its historical baggage, gendered provisions and social expectations.”

The recent statistics released by the ONS show that the number of those entering into civil partnerships in England and Wales is starting to pick up again. However, we have also seen an increase in the number of civil partnership dissolutions. In 2016, the figure rose by nearly 9% in England and Wales which means the number of civil partnership formations was outweighed by the number of dissolutions in 2016. Further, of the 1,313 civil partnership dissolutions that took place in 2016, 60% were accounted for by female couples.

Same Sex Marriage and Religion

It is important to remember that whilst same-sex couples are now able to enter into a civil marriage, the legislation does not compel religious organisations to conduct marriages between same sex couples. For example, the Church of England is legally banned from conducting marriages between same sex couples pursuant to The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. Similarly, same sex marriages cannot take place in Roman Catholic churches, Islamic mosques, Orthodox synagogues nor Hindu temples.

You can only therefore enter into a marriage as a same sex couple if:

  1. the religious organisation allows the marriage of same sex couples to take place; and
  2. the premises has been registered for the marriage of same sex couples

The figures are in fact staggering. Research undertaken by York University and Leeds University show that “Only 139 places of worship are registered to perform same-sex marriage in England and Wales, meaning approximately 99.5 per cent do not offer it. Just 23 same-sex couples had a religious marriage ceremony in 2014, compared with over 68,000 opposite-sex couples.”  So this in itself may represent a disincentive to marriage for many same-sex couples who wish to have a religious marriage in addition to a civil marriage and for whom, arguably a religious marriage is of crucial significance.

Conversion of Civil Partnerships to Marriage

Religious marriages aside, statistics from the ONS show that between 10 December 2014 and 30 June 2015, the number of conversions of civil partnerships to same sex marriages has declined. The peak was in December 2014 with conversions totalling 2401. There has however been a steep decline to 691 conversions in June 2015 representing just 13% of total civil partners in England and Wales. As the ONS identifies, one possible reason for the lower uptake of marriages between same sex parties as compared to civil partnerships is because when civil partnerships were first introduced, this was the only option available to same sex couples to formalise their relationship.

Interestingly however, since the introduction of marriages of same-sex couples in 2014, the percentage of civil partnerships formed by male couples has increased from 57% in 2014 to 68% in 2016. Conversely, the number of female couples entering into civil partnerships decreased from 43% in 2014 to 32% in 2016.

What Next?

For whatever reason, some couples who are currently cohabiting choose not to marry. The idea of marriage may simply not coincide with their values or beliefs. For many people, a civil partnership conforms more with their way of life and of course offers the legal protection that is otherwise unavailable as a cohabiting couple. This in itself is a hugely persuasive argument put forward by family practitioners for a change in the law and, of course highlights the lack of protection for those in cohabiting relationships.

In its latest release, the ONS states that “the Government Equalities Office (GEO) considers that it is too early to fully evaluate the impact of the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples on civil partnerships – more years of data are required”. The latest statistics regarding marriage in the UK are due to be released early in 2018.

Nevertheless, the Steinfeld and Keidan case has the potential to make some ground-breaking law as regards civil partnerships and, if successful, will provide an alternative to cohabiting couples who are looking to formalise their relationship in a manner other than marriage. A change in the law is warranted and the recent statistics from the ONS should also guide policymakers as to reform in this area.

Sources:

Civil Partnerships in England and Wales: 2016. Statistical Bulletin. Office for National Statistics.

Sacred Spaces, Sacred Words: Religion and Same-sex Marriage in England and Wales by Paul Johnson (Professor of Sociology, University of York) and Robert M. Vanderbeck (Professor of Geography, University of Leeds). The Journal of Law and Society 2 May 2017.