Five Supreme Court Justices have ruled in favour of a heterosexual couple whose three and a half year legal campaign challenged legislation preventing opposite-sex couples from entering into a civil partnership. The court unanimously agreed that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is ‘incompatible’ with the European Convention on Human Rights as it applies only to same-sex couples and therefore amounted to discrimination.
This judgment will likely put the Government under significant pressure to change the law and allow heterosexual couples to become civil partners. Currently, opposite-sex couples may only marry, whilst same-sex couples may opt to marry or enter into a civil partnership.
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Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan’s prolonged legal campaign has sought to extend this right to heterosexual couples. Following the Supreme Court ruling, they stated that they wanted to raise their two daughters as 'equal partners' and felt that a civil partnership was a 'modern, symmetrical institution'. Their barrister, Karen Monaghan QC, stated that Rebecca and Charles had 'deep-rooted and genuine objections to marriage'.
With an estimated 3.3 million couples in the UK cohabiting with little legal protection in the event of separation, a change in the law may encourage them to consider a civil partnership. A civil partnership affords couples the same legal protection as those who are married without what some see as the religious and patriarchal connotations of marriage. Despite the perpetual myth of the ‘common-law marriage’, cohabiting couples have limited legal rights and this can leave them vulnerable in the event of the breakdown of the relationship.
It remains to be seen how the Government will respond to the landmark ruling, however, it appears unlikely that they will take the drastic step of abolishing civil partnerships and dissolving the unions of 63,000 same-sex couples. It remains important for cohabiting couples to consider their legal rights when purchasing property jointly or having children together. Couples should make sure they take good legal advice and are protected in law.