Marriage Equality: Do We Still Need Civil Partnerships?

Love = Love

29 January 2016 is the second reading of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill and I am finding it difficult to decide how I feel about it. See: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/dec/02/couple-challenge-ban-heterosexual-civil-partnerships and http://equallove.org.uk/petition/

I am all for progression and equality but in my heart of hearts, I don’t know if opening up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples achieves that. In fact, I don’t think it achieves anything at all.

What is Civil Partnership?

I was reading Hansard today (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/2004/apr/22/civil-partnership-bill-hl, if your life is as exciting as mine) concerning the original act and there are a few things I noted:

1. They were very concerned with ensuring that civil partnerships were only open to same sex couples as not to undermine the concept and uptake of marriage.

2. Parliament, as ever, is progressive and filled with interesting speakers who share my views and know what they are talking about. (Shout out to Baroness Scotland of Asthal).

3. People who are against change towards equality use arguments to widen the application of the prospective provision to the point that it does not assist the intended group and conflates issues. i.e. “have civil partnerships open to people in caring relationships, i.e. grandparents and grandchildren to formalise their unrecognised relationship”. It’s not that such a proposition, for formalising that situation is not necessary or reasonable, but incorporating it into civil partnership would nullify the recognition of a serious, enduring, sexual relationship between same-sex couples. (I think the same strategy is used when people change #blacklivesmatter to #alllivesmatter – but I digress).

4. Even then it was recognised that Civil Partnerships and Marriages are essentially the same thing in the eyes of the law. (As pointed out explicitly by Baroness O’Cathain).

There is only one real difference between marriage and Civil Partnerships, and that is centred on pensions. The rest are merely window dressing and do not warrant time spend upon them. The recent court of appeal decision: O’Brien v Ministry of Justice [2015] EWCA Civ 1000 (06 October 2015), ensures the singular difference will remain. The applicant in this case entered into a civil partnership with his partner as soon as possible after the legislation was enacted. However, he was upset to find that survivor benefits under his occupational pension scheme were limited to the date that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force, unlike with married couples, where they are effective immediately and from the start of the policy. On appeal the outcome was the same as first instance, as upsetting as it is, our current progression cannot change the damage caused by discrimination and the Civil Partnerships Act did not apply retrospectively to allow an outcome where the benefits accrued before the act could be paid to a civil partner.

Aside from this difference everything else of consequence is the same.

Therefore the question – why do civil partnerships still exist? – arises. The answer is: I am not quite sure. It was a part of the journey towards marriage equality and we have reached our destination. I am fully understanding of the fact that to many same-sex couples, a civil partnership has been the legal recognition they have waited for and holds and important place in their lives. However, it is the same as marriage in all but name, so why not let marriage solely remain? Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Connecticut and New Hampshire all stopped new civil partnerships being entered into after enacting same-sex marriage (and personally, I have a soft spot for Norway and Sweden’s progression in these areas). Some even went as far as converting all Civil Partnerships to Marriages over a period of time. Here, we have decided against that to preserve existing civil partnerships and legal relationships that people understand. But now, with this extension of the equal love movement to cover civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples, maybe we should consider the above options.

I can’t help but think that the people who want civil partnership for opposite sex couples either misunderstand the legal implications of civil partnerships or are making trouble for nothing. Civil partnerships were formed on a background of oppression, unfairness and misunderstanding of homosexual relationships. Civil Partnerships were created as a stepping stone en route to marriage equality: Straight couples fighting for this stepping stone is a parody of the meaning of equality. They already had marriage – what the equality measure was aiming towards.

Some people think that Civil Partnerships offer a realistic alternative to marriage, with different legal implications.

These people are wrong.

Have a look at the acts on Gov.uk – they are largely the same! This creates the hazard of people thinking they are entering a relationship that is different from marriage but in reality, being bound by the same constraints. To some extent, they are being deprived of making a reasoned and informed choice about the status of their relationship because they don’t understand the options. The only remaining set of people are those who are against the concept of a traditional marriage. These people do not seem to understand that they, as individuals and couples, can control exactly how traditional their marriage will be. They can have a religious or non-religious ceremony, a pre-nuptial agreement; the wife can work full time when the husband looks after the children. The material differences are what they do with their relationship, not what their union is called.

I know marriage is a reminder of the patriarchy but we are the generation to transform that, and we already started to do so with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. Civil Partnerships were a useful and essential step in achieving marriage equality. Whatever they become in the future, I hope we don’t lose sight of that.

13 November 2015

Monifa Walters-Thompson

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