Equality for all! Hooray! Oh no wait…….

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 introduced the UK to a new relationship status, the Civil Partnership. The Act was explicit in its terms; only two people of the same sex could enter into such a relationship status. This was the means deployed by government to address inequality between homosexual couples and their heterosexual counterparts. By entering into a civil partnership a homosexual couple could enjoy the same legal rights attributed to married couples. This was a good starting point for many, but others saw the opening up of marriage to same sex couples in late 2014 as the true mark of equality. However it unwittingly became the source of another inequality issue.

Homosexual couples now have a choice as to how they would like to formalise their relationship, either through means of a civil partnership or marriage, whereas the latter is the only option currently available for heterosexuals. It was this perceived inequality that founded the decision of Rebecca Steinfield and Charles Keidan to launch legal proceedings seeking Judicial Review of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. Their argument was that the current law contained in this primary piece of legislation was incompatible with European Law, in particular their Article 8 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, namely the right to a private and family life. The fastest growing family type in the past 10 years in the UK has been that of cohabitants. This couple, perhaps like many others, has strong reasons for not entering into a marriage. They believe the institution of marriage itself to be patriarchal, creating sexist connotations in relation to the stereotypical gender roles that are attributed to both parties within a marriage. By not entering into a marriage however, they are denying themselves the legal rights that they would enjoy, which are not currently fully afforded to cohabitants. They believe that civil partnership could be perceived as a more ‘equal’ union and so the choice to enter such status should be opened up to heterosexual couples.

On 29th January 2016, the High Court in England rejected their case but found the issue to be of great public importance, and gave the couple permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal. The opinion of the court was that withholding the status of civil partner from them did not show a lack of respect for their private or family life or subject them to humiliation or derogatory treatment. The UK was under no obligation to extend marriage to same sex couples and likewise it has no obligation to extend civil partnership to heterosexual couples.

A government review of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is expected to be carried out and a decision made as to the future of Civil Partnership. No one knows how relevant civil partnership will remain now the institution of marriage has been opened up to everyone. However, until such decision is made, it is likely more arguments of this kind will be raised.


Author: Lyndsey O’Byrne  L.L.B. (Hons), currently studying the Dipoma in Legal Practice

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm.

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