The Government has announced that it intends to bring about a change in the law to enable heterosexual couples to choose to enter into a civil partnership rather than to be married.
It will be remembered that a high profile case that went to the Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that a restriction of civil partnership to same sex couples was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
It was therefore not unexpected that formal changes in the law would be contemplated as a result of that ruling.
The concept of civil partnership was originally introduced to enable same sex couples to formalise a relationship and was something of a stop gap measure at the time which stopped short of providing for same sex marriages.
Same sex marriages have of course subsequently come along and from one point of view, one might think that civil partnerships would become a historical footnote. This has in fact happened in some other countries.
However, opposite sex couples have also expressed a wish to chose civil partnerships rather than marriage for a variety of reasons – both legal and cultural.
It seems illogical that one option should be available to same sex couples but not to heterosexual couples, even if it was an option that was originally perceived as a compromise measure.
It may be that some heterosexual couples will opt for a civil partnership, not as an alternative to marriage, but as an alternative to cohabitation, a status which confers no legal obligations, rights or responsibilities at all. At the end of a cohabitation relationship there can be serious difficulties and injustices, the Court lacking any discretion to be able to divide assets, though there is a counter argument that those who wanted to have enforceable rights at the end of a relationship should have entered into a legal relationship , i.e. marriage.
It is important that anyone entering into a civil partnership should understand that this is not ‘marriage lite’ and breakdown of a civil partnership carries the same consequences as the breakdown of a marriage in the terms of the powers of the Court to make provision for financial remedies orders to divide assets between the parties and provide for pension sharing where appropriate.
It is also worth noting that civil partnership may not necessarily be recognised in all countries between same sex or opposite sex couples. Indeed, some countries have actually abandoned civil partnerships upon introducing same sex marriages.