Civil Partnerships, Priorities and Clarity
Published on 23 September, 2020 | Alison Fernandes
The pace at which family life in this country is changing shows no sign of slowing down.
I’m not just talking about the number of marriages in England and Wales falling by 40 per cent drop over the last five decades, despite the population rising by one-fifth over the same period.
Nor am simply I referring to a doubling in the number of cohabiting couples in the course of the last 20 years.
Attitudes to what constitutes a family have undergone a far broader shift, leaving the authorities scrambling to catch up.
In 2004, we saw evidence of a response with the introduction of civil partnerships for same-sex couples – a significant step towards parliament’s allowing gay couples to marry a decade later.
At the start of this summer, we also saw the first major reform of divorce law in almost half a century with the passing of a so-called ‘no-fault’ divorce law intended to reduce the potential for conflict when marriages end.
Sandwiched in between those developments, though, was another milestone.
In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that a couple – Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld – were only unable to enter into a civil partnership because the UK law was incompatible with human rights legislation (https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2017-0060-press-summary.pdf).
The couple had, as the Court acknowledged, “genuine ideological objections to marriage” but were unable to become civil partners as that status was only available to same-sex couples under the law as things stood then.
A Government amendment last year meant that such a step was finally possible from the 31st of December and now, thanks to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), we have some idea as to how many other couples feel the same way.
Its latest figures on civil partnerships have revealed that, on the first day possible, 137 opposite-sex couples entered into such arrangements (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/civilpartnershipsinenglandandwales/2019).
Of course, looking a little deeper at ONS’ data always pays rich dividends, revealing in this instance the kind of patterns which perhaps illustrate why civil partnerships are desirable.
If we leave aside the single day heterosexual civil partnerships for one moment, we can see their continuing appeal for same-sex couples.
For some, civil partnerships were initially only a stepping stone to gay marriage. That’s evident from the reduction in the number of civil partnerships after same-sex marriage became a real option.
The number of same-sex civil partnerships in 2015 – the first year after same-sex marriage came into force – was just six per cent of what it had been in 2005, the year after they were introduced.
Even so, they have steadily recovered in popularity – up 15 per cent since 2015, in fact – and I think that I may know why.
Examining the ONS data, we see that half of all those who entered into same-sex civil partnerships in 2019 were aged 50 or over, compared to just 19 per cent in 2013.
Just as with heterosexual couples who choose to marry, individuals of that age who are in relationships tend to think about their financial security and that of their partners.
By formalising those relationships – either with marriage or a civil partnership – they remove some of the uncertainties about what happens to their assets when they die.
Despite the urging of some parliamentarians, there is still no automatic right of inheritance for cohabitees should their partners pass away.
Many unmarried relationships are formed by those who, like Mr Keidan and Ms Steinfeld, object on principal to the idea of being a spouse.
A civil partnership, though, offers the same protections to surviving partners, even in the failure so far to progress the Cohabitation Rights Bill advanced by Lord Marks onto the statute book.
Such couples gain formal recognition of their commitment to one another and gain the same financial assurance as those who choose to marry but without what some see as the dated connotations of marriage.
That the ONS expects to see further increases in the number of men and women following the lead of Mr Keidan and Ms Steinfeld should, therefore, come as no surprise.
Equally, though, we should not be surprised if some civil partnerships fail just as marriages do.
Whilst financial planning is clearly a reason for formalising a relationship, it’s equally important to plan for what might happen in the event of relationships not lasting the course.