Same-sex relationships, civil partnerships and the law
The Times religious expert Ruth Gledhill, what civil partnerships actually mean in the eyes of the law, and those of the church asks solicitor Sam Longworth and
How civil partnerships came into being
Most of us see marriage as the joining of two people who love each other for life, excluding all others, in sickness and in health, and so on and so forth. Throughout society, this is how marriage is recognised - regardless of your religion, social class or country of origin. The problem is that this somewhat narrow definition excludes a substantial group of individuals, most notably, those in gay relationships.
But it's not just the social recognition of marriage that excludes same sex couples. While heterosexual couples can choose to marry - a bond which brings with it rights and responsibilities (most notably financial provisions should the marriage break down) - there were no such rights for same-sex couples.
The question of how to address this inequality has been taken up by political parties throughout the world. Some countries including Holland, Denmark and Canada chose simply to reword the definition of marriage to allow gay couples to marry, in exactly the same way, with the same benefits, as heterosexual couples.
The UK however, found that it couldn't take the same liberal standing because of how deeply entrenched the Church is in politics, worrying that the 'sanctity of marriage' would be threatened by same-sex marriage. So a compromise had to be found.
This solution was the civil partnership - a new legal relationship exclusively for same-sex couples, which provides all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, with social recognition of the status of the relationship. After much heated debate, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 ('the CPA') became part of British law on 5 December 2005.
Marriage in all but name?
The CPA almost exactly copies the legal provisions available to married couples. But there are some differences which many consider still promote inequality. As with marriage, couples planning a CP, must give a formal notice and wait a set amount of time before the partnership can be registered through a ceremony. The rub is that this registration ceremony cannot take place in a church or any other religious premises. Instead same-sex couples must choose venues that accommodate CPs such as hotels, town halls or other authorized venues.
In marriage, the exchanging of vows is part of the validation process, but this is not so in a civil partnership, although many choose to do so anyway. It's the signing of a registration document by both partners which affirms civil partnership.
Same-sex marriages: rights and responsibilities
Civil partners have many rights, such as the right to occupy their partner's home, the right to vote by proxy, and perhaps most importantly, the right to claim financial relief should the relationship break down.
Their rights and responsibilities are identical to those of married couples. And as with marriage, there are also risks, such as the risk of one becoming bankrupt, which could mean that jointly owned assets may be seized and used to pay off debts owed - which could include the couple's home!
Civil partnership - no substitute for marriage
Some feel that until gay partnerships (or even marriage) legislation is globally recognised as opposed to the current 'one rule for one country, another for another' situation, many same-sex couples feel that symbolically, the civil partnership is no substitute.
Even worse, some gay couples who marry in countries where it is legal, find that their marriage is 'reduced' to that of a CP once they arrive in the UK. To those same-sex couples, who have been recognised as married abroad, this can be seen as downgrading the status of their relationship.
Continuing injustice and inequality?
Despite this, the CPA was a quantum leap forward in terms of the recognition of the rights of same-sex couples, and now all couples can legally register their relationship, no matter what their sexual orientation.
However, for many a civil partnership may appear to be little more than a poor relation of marriage, allowing a sense of injustice and discrimination to continue.
This article was written by Sam Longworth, a solicitor in the Family team at SA Law. www.salaw.com