As of today (31 December 2019), heterosexual couples in England and Wales will be able to enter civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage.
This change does not yet extend to Scotland: the Scottish Government has introduced its own Bill to introduce civil partnerships for heterosexual couples.
An info graphic showing the current progress of this Bill in the Scottish Parliament (Stage 1) can be seen below:
When the Labour Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair originally introduced civil partnerships across the UK (as a result of the Civil Partnerships Act 2004) such legal unions were open to gay and lesbian couples only.
It was the first time in the history of Scots and English family law that gay and lesbian couples were entitled to enter a legally recognised relationship.
Fast forward a decade or so and we now have same sex marriage in Scotland, England and Wales – but not yet Northern Ireland (although the clock may be ticking here on this issue). Admittedly, same sex couples can enter civil partnerships in Northern Ireland, but since the Republic of Ireland made same sex marriage legal in 2015, pressure has been mounting for change in the North.
The case which started the ball rolling was Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education  EWHC 128 (Admin).
In Steinfeld and Keidan, an unmarried, heterosexual couple brought a claim for unlawful less favourable treatment against the UK Government on the basis that the law (contained in the Civil Partnership Act 2004) discriminated against them by forcing them to enter marriage as opposed to their preferred option of a civil partnership arrangement. The couple had strong “ideological objections” to marriage (irrespective of whether it took a religious or civil form) and argued, amongst other things, that the failure by the United Kingdom to give them the option of entering a civil partnership was a potential breach of their Article 8 rights (the right to privacy and family life) in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ban on civil partnerships for heterosexual couples was also a potential breach of the Equality Act 2010 in the sense that it represented direct discrimination on grounds of a person’s sexual orientation.
Initially, the English High Court rejected the challenge brought by Steinfeld and Keidan, whereupon the case was allowed to proceed to the English Court of Appeal. Although expressing sympathy for Steinfeld and Keidan’s predicament, the Lord Justices of Appeal refused to overturn the ban (see Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education  EWCA Civ 81).
The couple were then given leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.
On 27 June 2018, the Supreme Court issued its decision: R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) (Appellants) v Secretary of State for International Development (in substitution for the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary)  UKSC 32.
Lord Kerr gave the leading judgement (with which his fellow Justices concurred) and allowed Steinfeld and Keidan’s appeal:
“I would allow the appeal and make a declaration that sections 1 and 3 of CPA [Civil Partnership Act 2004] (to the extent that they preclude a different sex couple from entering into a civil partnership) are incompatible with article 14 of ECHR taken in conjunction with article 8 of the Convention.”
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the UK Government of former Prime Minister Theresa May initiated steps to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 in respect of the law for England and Wales.
A link to an article about the change to the law in England and Wales on the Sky News website can be found below:
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Copyright Seán J Crossan, 31 December 2019