A high-profile ruling but heterosexual civil partnerships are still illegal

A recent high-profile ruling by the Supreme Court case stated that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples is discriminatory – but heterosexual couples still cannot enter into civil partnerships, as this remains illegal until the government changes the law.

Robert Williams, head of Litigation at Neath and SA1 based law firm Hutchinson Thomas, says it is a common misnomer that a high-profile court ruling such as this changes the law. But it does not, as only parliament can alter the law itself.

The case in question, which lasted more than three years, finally came to an end in July 2018. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples is discriminatory.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan won their bid to make their civil partnership legal. The UK’s highest court agreed with them unanimously that their human rights had been breached.

The two argued that the institution of marriage is an antiquated symbol of sexism – and that heterosexual couples should be given the choice to enter into a legal and financial union, without the influence of a patriarchal marriage system.

In fact, in the three and a half years since they launched their legal claim Steinfeld and Keidan have had two children. In rejection of the patriarchal associations of marriage, they decided against giving their children double-barrelled surnames, and instead combining their surnames to create Keidstein.

This high-profile case attracted the attention of the Marriage Foundation, which, perhaps surprisingly, agreed that civil partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples, believing they are “infinitely preferable to unthinking and risky cohabitation”.

Other countries including South Africa, New Zealand and the Netherlands allow couples to choose either civil partnership or marriage. But this case was the first time the issue had been addressed in the UK.

However, this case has still not established the legality of civil partnerships in the UK – it has only created a precedent for parliament to explore, Williams stresses. Until parliament acts, it remains illegal.

The wheels are in motion for this to happen. Dawn Butler, Labour’s shadow minister for women and equalities, and Tim Loughton, a Conservative MP, have submitted a private member’s bill that commits ministers to carry out an investigation into civil partnerships.

The prime minister’s official spokesman also commented: “The government equality office is to consider all aspects of civil partnerships for heterosexual and same-sex couples. This is currently under way and we will consider its conclusions in due course.”

Williams explains the importance of the case and what needs to happen next.

“Heterosexual couples have been able to marry in religious ceremonies or formal settings like a registry office for a long time, whilst same-sex couples have only recently been allowed the same legal rights. However, this case highlights that there is still a lack of equality when it comes to civil partnerships.

“The most important thing this case has done, has brought the issue to the fore. The government would likely not of brought it up of their own volition. Hopefully this has triggered the beginning of an exploration into marriage legislation and we can see some positive change in the future.”

For expert legal advice about marriage law – contact Robert on 01639 640152 or email: robert.williams@hutchinsonthomas.com