Civil partnership for different-sex couples: a win for equality or a store of future problems?

NGA_Stock_175Theresa May announced at the Conservative Party conference this week that the government plans to open civil partnership to different-sex couples.

It is not a big surprise. The government has been procrastinating about how best to end the current discrimination for some time. Civil partnership was introduced in 2004 to give same-sex couples legal recognition when same-sex marriage couldn’t yet be swallowed. But since the introduction of same-sex marriage as well in 2013, its continuation has meant that same-sex couples have had a choice over whether to marry or register a civil partnership while different-sex couples have only had the option of marriage.

In many ways the decision to expand civil partnership to different-sex couples feels like a win for equality. It’s good to have choice and modern forms of relationship. It’s good for gay and straight couples to be treated equally.

It’s also undoubtedly a win for those groups of personally affected individuals who care deeply about this: different-sex couples who reject the traditional marriage label, and same-sex civil partners who do not want their existing status changed or taken away.

But the decision is problematic, and in time one which the government may come to regret.

The biggest problem is that there is no real difference between marriage and civil partnership. Civil partnership was never meant to be an alternative to marriage. It was – very clearly and deliberately – marriage for same-sex couples in all but name. It is the legacy of same-sex relationships being ‘less than’, like ‘separate but equal’ racial segregation in 1950s America, and with the arrival of same-sex marriage its whole rationale has evaporated.

If couples actually want a choice of relationship status then we should offer that and provide a real alternative to marriage. Civil partnership isn’t it, and keeping it may just defer more meaningful reform. Family lawyers have for decades been campaigning for rights for cohabiting couples and this would be a better use of Parliamentary time.

Secondly, civil partnerships don’t travel well. While most marriages are recognised internationally, the rules on recognition of civil partnership vary considerably from country to country. Couples who choose civil partnership expecting the rights of marriage with a more modern-sounding label may get a horrible shock when they move abroad and discover they have none.

Overall, a better decision might have been for the government to make civil partnership a closed category going forward or even to abolish it altogether, and at the same time introduce new rights for cohabitees (gay and straight) which provide a genuine alternative to marriage.

Of course the best decision of all would have been for Parliament to have been brave enough to pass same-sex marriage in 2004, and to have called civil partnership what it really was. The smoke and mirrors fudge which (thankfully and rightly) enabled progress 14 years ago has ultimately left us with a difficult legacy to resolve.

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