Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage to paraphrase the words of the old song from the 1950s …
… but not for much longer in Scotland if the Scottish Government has its way. A new Bill lodged by the Government this week will potentially revolutionise legal unions for heterosexual couples who want commitment but not, critically, in the form of marriage.
The Civil Partnerships Act 2004 was originally passed by the UK Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair in order to permit same sex couples to enter a legally binding relationship. At the time, the Blair Government stressed that this type of legal arrangement was not open to heterosexual couples and should not be regarded as “gay marriage”.
This legislation also extended the same employment benefits that married couples already enjoyed to same sex couples who entered a civil partnership. In relation to the field of employment rights, the Act applies to employment and pension benefits e.g. a concessionary travel scheme and civil partners of an employee will be entitled to take advantage of these if existing provisions permit a heterosexual partner or spouse of an employee to claim these benefits.
In Bull and Another v Preddy and Another  UKSC 73, UK Supreme Court Justice, Baroness Hale made the following remarks about civil partnerships:
“Civil partnership is not called marriage but in almost every other respect it is indistinguishable from the status of marriage in United Kingdom law. It was introduced so that same sex couples could voluntarily assume towards one another the same legal responsibilities, and enjoy the same legal rights, as married couples assume and enjoy. It is more than a contract. Like marriage, it is a status, in which some of the terms are prescribed by law, and which has consequences for people other than the couple themselves and for the state.”
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.
This means that same sex couples have the option of entering into marriage or civil partnership. This choice is still denied to heterosexual couples – until now, hence the introduction of the Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill.
Traditional marriage between a man and woman has been criticised on a number of grounds:
• It’s seen as very patriarchal i.e. historically it unduly favours the male partner
• It has religious associations which are not in keeping with the fact that the UK is (in 2019) a much more secular society
• Some heterosexual couples are increasingly attracted to a more equitable and modern form of legal commitment i.e. civil partnership.
Despite these criticisms of traditional marriage, until recently neither the UK or Scottish Governments had shown a desire to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. That is until very recently and a UK Supreme Court decision has now made reform of the institution of marriage and civil partnership essential on the basis of a human rights challenge.
The case which started the ball rolling was Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education .
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.
The couple were then given leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.
On 27 June 2018, the 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.”
If, post Steinfeld and Keidan, the Scottish Government continued to allow civil partnership legislation to operate in its original form, there was a very real risk that the Scottish Ministers would be taken to court and challenged by heterosexual couples (using Steinfeld and Keidan ) on human rights grounds.
Letting the status quo prevail in Scotland was not an option because of the implications for human rights, so the Scottish Government announced a public consultation on civil partnerships in September 2018:
This consultation closed on 21 December 2018 and presented two options:
- Abolishing the option of future civil partnerships for all; or
- Permitting heterosexual couples to have the option of marriage or civil partnership.
A link to the Scottish Government’s consultation paper can be found below:
On the back of this consultation, the Scottish Government has now introduced the Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill in order to implement option 2.
As the Policy Memorandum accompanying this Bill clearly states:
“In Scotland, couples can marry or enter into a civil partnership, or choose to cohabit. Same sex and mixed sex couples can marry, and same sex and mixed sex couples can decide to cohabit. Civil partnership is currently available only to same sex couples, but this Bill will extend the relationship to mixed sex couples.”
It is more than likely that this Bill will command significant support in the Scottish Parliament and will soon become law.
An info graphic showing the current progress of this Bill can be seen below:
A link to BBC Scotland’s website about the introduction of the Bill can be found below:
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee of the Scottish Parliament is now seeking the views of the public about the future of civil partnerships and whether allowing heterosexual couples to enter into this type of legal arrangement is desirable.
Interested members of the public have until 31 January 2020 to submit their views to the Committee.
More information about the Committee’s work in this area can be found by accessing the press release at the link below:
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 4 October & 9 November 2019