The campaign to allow heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships suffered a blow last month as the High Court ruled that the current law – which denies opposite-sex couples this option – does not breach human rights legislation.
Under UK law, while same-sex couples can choose to have a civil partnership or marry, opposite-sex couples cannot make a relationship official by any means other than marriage.
This inconsistency exists as before 2014, same-sex couples were not allowed to marry in the UK. However, in 2005 civil partnerships were introduced specifically to provide these couples with the same legal protection as married couples. No doubt because the government at the time did not want to risk a backlash from some quarters by introducing full marriage equality.
Thankfully today, both same-sex and opposite-sex couples can marry. However, the civil partnership remains in place and is only available to same-sex partners.
However, with a vast number of people turning their backs on marriage, and the UK benefiting from a variety of diverse family structures, the ability to formalise long-term relationships through other legal means has never been more important.
As such, in a recent case, one heterosexual couple brought a human rights case against the government, stating they were being discriminated against by the current law.
However, the High Court judge rejected their case, finding that their right to family and private life – a critical consideration in human rights cases – was not affected. Stating that: “Whilst their views are of course to be afforded respect, it is their choice not to avail themselves of the means of state recognition that is open to them. The state has fulfilled its obligations under the Convention by making a means of formal recognition of their relationship available”
What this means is that while Article 14 of the Human Rights Act requires there to be no discrimination in the application of human rights on any ground – including sexual orientation – heterosexual couples are barred from claiming discrimination under this Article. Fundamentally because their exclusion from civil partnerships does not have a sufficient impact on their right to respect for their family life.
In short, it’s all a bit of a mess.
Despite the recent judgement (which may go to appeal), the reality is that many couples in long-term relationships are choosing not marry. And with cohabiting couples having almost no legal rights should their relationship break down, it seems unfair that we deny these couples protection under the law by means of a civil partnership. Indeed, while the human rights of opposite couples may not be breached – legally at least – this doesn’t mean that reform is not required.
If you and your partner are currently living together without being married, it is vital to obtain legal advice as soon as possible to make sure that your rights are protected.Find out more about our Family department