In a move to provide greater security for unmarried couples and their families, Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that heterosexual couples in England and Wales will be able to choose between a civil partnership and marriage.

The proposed change follows a Supreme Court ruling, in which a heterosexual couple won the right to have a civil partnership instead of a marriage. In only applying to same-sex couples, the court ruled that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Civil partnerships were introduced in 2004 to same-sex couples, unable to marry at the time, to provide them with the same legal and financial protection as marriage. Same-sex marriage was then legalised under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 in England and Wales, and the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act 2014 in Scotland. Same-sex marriage has not been legalised in Northern Ireland.

Unmarried, mixed-sex couples would also be able to gain legal and financial protection through a civil partnership, as well as a partnership free of religious connotations and associations with traditional gender roles.

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, PM Theresa May said: “This change in the law helps protect the interests of opposite-sex couples who want to commit, want to formalise their relationship but don’t necessarily want to get married.”

There are currently around 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK, many of whom are unaware that they do not possess the same rights and protections as those married or in civil partnerships. This can cause issues following the death of a partner if the surviving partner is looking to claim inheritance.

The Scottish government is also in the process of consulting on whether mixed-sex couples in Scotland will be able to enter into civil partnerships. The consultation will run until the 21st December 2018, and is seeking a public response on two options:

  • no new civil partnerships can be entered into following a cut-off date, or
  • civil partnerships are opened to opposite-sex couples in Scotland.

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