Gay Marriage versus Civil Partnership – What’s the Difference?

Last week’s free vote in the House of Commons resulted in MPs overwhelmingly agreeing that Lesbian and Gay couples ought to have the right to marry. Predictably, there are get-out clauses for some religious and other groups, and equally predictable, there was an outcry from those against stating such a move, contending that it would undermine marriage as an institution..

Since December 2005 it has been possible for gay and lesbian couples to acquire the same rights as heterosexual spouses, by forming a Civil Partnership. This is akin to a marriage, in that the procedure for dissolution of such a partnership is the same as for a divorce. The only difference is that adultery is not a ground for dissolution, but is for divorce, although presumably unfaithfulness would count as unreasonable behaviour. As for financial and other claims, there is no practical difference in the applications for capital or maintenance that couples can make on the breakdown of their relationships, and they can inherit in the same way, give consent to the medical treatment of the other, and obtain parental responsibility for children. The court is directed by statute to consider identical factors for both marriage and civil partnerships.  This must be correct as otherwise it would be discriminatory to afford lesser rights and protection by law simply on the grounds of sexuality. There are also those heterosexual cohabiting couples who would like to enter into civil partnerships rather than marriage.

So what is the difference between marriage and civil partnerships?

It seems that there are two main issues; one is a general desire for recognition that same-sex marriage is on a par with the heterosexual unit, but the other is religious. The former is not going to be effected by laws, but by a change in societal attitudes. This is happening, as the older generations tend to be most unhappy with the notion of it. As to religion, there have certainly been noises in the right direction. Civil Partners are merely required to sign a document, and both parties do not even have to do this at the same time or be together when they do. This is very different to a wedding which demands various formalities to include Banns being read. The Home Office announced last year that it was lifting the prohibition on civil partnership ceremonies being held in religious places of worship, although no-one was going to be compelled to host the registration, and also that legislation would be brought forward to allow same-sex couples to have full registry office ceremonies. This has not as yet come to pass, although the removal of the ban on civil partnerships in churches and other religious premises was agreed on a free vote in both houses of parliament in a late amendment to Labour’s Equality Act 2010 before the coalition government came to power. It will be a brave government who forces this major change through now in the face of quite vehement opposition from church-led and other religious groups, particularly as the former will have to hold the ceremonies.

Is the likely uptake of gay marriage likely to be significantly different to that for civil partnerships? There have been 42,778 civil partnerships registered to the end of 2010, according to the Office of National Statistics. As one would expect, the highest annual number were recorded in the first year of availability (18,000 for the twelve months to December 2006), and since then there are on average about 6,000 per year.

If you have any questions about civil partnerships, we at Blanchards Law would be happy to discuss those with you.