Civil partnerships: It's time for straight equality

"In a democracy, we all are supposed to be equal before the law"

February 27, 2017
©Peter Tatchell
©Peter Tatchell

The legal battle for equal civil partnerships is set to go to the Supreme Court. This follows the Court of Appeal ruling last week that the current ban on mixed-sex civil partnerships is lawful. In a split two-to-one decision, judges rejected an application by a London heterosexual couple, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, to open up civil partnerships to everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality.

Qualifying his rejection, Lord Justice Beatson said: “I do not consider that the discrimination in the status quo can be maintained for long.”

This suggests that the government now has only a further short window to "wait and evaluate" before deciding the future of civil partnerships—whether they should be phased out or extended to all. I support the latter. If ministers fail to reach a decision soon, the court indicated the government will be in breach of the Human Rights Act.

Commenting on the judgement, co-appellant Rebecca Steinfeld said:

“All three judges agreed that we’re being treated differently because of our sexual orientation, and that this impacts our private and family life. All three rejected the argument that we could ‘just get married.’ All three emphasised that the government cannot maintain the status quo for much longer—they are on borrowed time. Lady Justice Arden accepted our case on almost every point. She stated: ‘My overall conclusion: the appellants are right.’ We lost on a technicality—that the government should be allowed a little more time to make a decision. So there’s everything to fight for, and much in the ruling that gives us reason to be positive and keep going.”

The couple announced they will appeal to the Supreme Court.

The judges’ unwillingness to endorse equal civil partnerships was a defeat for love and equality. It will be a huge disappointment to the thousands of heterosexual couples who would like to have a civil partnership.

This legal case was always about the simple quest to end discrimination. If civil partnerships exist, they should be open to everyone. In a democracy, we all are supposed to be equal before the law. It cannot be right that same-sex couples have two options, civil partnership and civil marriage; whereas opposite-sex partners have only one option, marriage.

Other countries that have civil partnerships make them available to all couples. Why can’t the UK? It is intolerable that our unmarried different-sex couples have to go to the Isle of Man to register as civil partners because UK law won’t allow it.

In the Netherlands, where civil partnerships have been open to all couples for more than a decade, 10 per cent of heterosexual couples choose to have a civil partnership rather than marry. There is likely to be a similar take-up rate if civil partnerships were available in the UK. So why not?

The battle for equal civil partnerships began way back in 2003, when the then Labour government first proposed civil partnerships as a way of defusing the pressure for same-sex marriage. Together with the LGBT human rights group OutRage!, I pushed for civil partnerships to be open to everyone, regardless of sex or sexuality. Tony Blair said no.

The battle continued with the Equal Love campaign, which was launched in 2010 with the aim of securing an end to what was, at the time, the twin ban on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. We won on marriage equality and we won 61 per cent support for civil partnership equality in the government’s 2012 public consultation (only 24 per cent opposed). Alas, David Cameron said no to male-female civil partnerships.

Charles’s and Rebecca’s latest and up-coming legal bids are a commendable continuation of this 14-year-long campaign.

They contend that Section 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which restricts civil partnerships to same-sex couples, is incompatible with Article 14, read in conjunction with Article 8, of the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights. These articles respectively require that everyone should be treated equally by the law and that everyone has a right to privacy and family life.

The current ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships is without merit or justification. The government has failed to show why it is necessary. It has provided no evidence to support its exclusionary stance.

Indeed, it is outrageous that successive Labour and Tory administrations have been so resistant to legislate equality and that this couple have been forced to go to court to get a basic human right—the right to be treated equally in law.

The Equal Civil Partnerships campaign, of which I am a part, makes the case for opening up civil partnerships to different-sex couples as follows:

Extending civil partnerships will provide a legal and financial safety net for couples who don’t want to get married and, if they have any, for their children. Every person and every couple should have equal access to all available legal systems of relationship recognition and rights. The current ban on different-sex civil partnerships is unfair discrimination and is at odds with this basic democratic principle. This inequality can be very easily addressed with a simple amendment to the Civil Partnership Act.

Some critics of the campaign argue: Why can’t people just get married? There are various reasons people choose not to marry: from disastrous previous marriages, to simply not feeling ready. Some share the feminist critique; objecting to the sexist, patriarchal traditions of wedlock. Civil partnerships are, in contrast, a symmetrical, egalitarian institution conferring almost identical legal rights and responsibilities as marriage but without its historical baggage, gendered provisions and social expectations. Instead of dictating people’s options, the government should extend civil partnerships to provide a legal and financial safety net for couples who don’t want matrimony.

So the legal and ethical case for equal civil partnerships is clear to me. As a gay man who is grateful for heterosexual support to help us secure marriage equality, I want to reciprocate that support to ensure that my straight friends can have the same civil partnership option as me. It’s simply a matter of equality.


Peter Tatchell is the Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation: www.petertatchellfoundation.org