By Callum Townend, Trainee Solicitor

Recent calls for reform of civil partnership, including those of Conservative MP, Tim Loughton, have gained traction as critics argue that the current law “does not reflect modern Britain”.

What is a Civil Partnership?

The concept of Civil Partnership was introduced in 2004 as a means of providing same-sex couples with similar rights and protections as married mixed-sex couples. The campaign to allow same-sex couples the right to marry has been well documented in recent years and when the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act received the Royal Assent from Parliament in 2014, it was seen as a progressive act and a breakthrough for equality. However, while the 2014 Act provided same-sex couple with the opportunity to marry, it did not broaden the remit of civil partnership to include mixed-sex couples. 

In legal terms, civil partnerships and marriage are broadly similar, although there are some notable differences. The terminology that is used for civil partnerships is slightly different in that a married couple who separate may get divorced, whereas a civil partnership would be dissolved. Also, while a marriage can be ended on the basis of one party’s adultery, a civil partnership cannot be dissolved on that basis. The calls to expand the definition of civil partnership do not, however, arise due to the legal differences between the two concepts. The demands for change stem from the moral and religious connotations that accompany marriage and civil partnership.

Marriage and Civil Partnerships

Marriage is a historic concept and the first formal definition can be traced back to the 12th century where the Roman Catholic Church defined marriage as a sacrament, sanctioned by God. Although in recent years we have seen a rise in the number of non-religious ceremonies, some mixed-sex couples argue that the institution of marriage remains rooted in religion and that marriage promotes the ideology of proprietorship over a spouse. We have also seen in the media frequent discussion around forced marriages within some religious communities. Supporters of civil partnership reform argue that mixed-sex couples should be allowed to enter into a state recognised committed relationship which provides the same legal protections that are enjoyed by married couples, without having to actually enter into a marriage and, therefore, be associated with the concept. Although civil partnership was introduced initially as a stepping stone to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, it is now perceived by some to be a modern alternative to marriage.

Going forward, the UK Parliament has indicated that this matter will remain under review. Given that family law is a devolved matter, any change in the Scottish definition of civil partnership would require the Scottish Parliament to legislate on the matter. It seems now that civil partnership has become a more meaningful concept than perhaps was originally intended and reform may be required to bring the law in line with modern society.

 Civil Partnerships in Bermuda

The topic of civil partnership and marriage has also arisen recently as a point of contention in the British overseas territory of Bermuda, which became the first country to allow and then subsequently revoke same-sex marriage, replacing it with domestic partnership. The UK government has refused to block this legislation, arguing that legislative intervention must only be used in exceptional circumstances. It is notable that the Bermudian domestic partnership is available to both same and mixed-sex couples and provides equivalent legal rights to marriage. This could provide some insight as to what a civil partnership may look like in the UK if the law is to undergo reform, although clearly it is not anticipated that any such amendment to the law would involve the revocation of same-sex marriage legislation as has happened in Bermuda.