Recently the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favour of Rebecca Steinfeld, 37, and Charles Keidan, 41, from London. The court said the Civil Partnership Act 2004 - which only applies to same-sex couples - was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Ms Steinfeld said she hoped the government does the "right thing" and extends civil partnerships to all. She is reported to have said that she was frustrated that the government had wasted money fighting what the judges' referred to as a “blatant inequality”.
The Supreme Court found that the inequality amounts to discrimination and a breach of the right to a family life. Whilst this judgement does not mean the government have to change the law, it it does make it more likely that the government will now act. Where there is a civil partnership, it means that the couple are entitled to the same legal treatment in terms of inheritance, tax, pensions and next-of-kin arrangements as marriage.
In this case the couple, who met in 2010 and have two children, said the "legacy of marriage" which "treated women as property for centuries" was not an option for them. When speaking in the media following the judgement they said "We want to raise our children as equal partners and feel that a civil partnership - a modern, symmetrical institution - sets the best example for them.”
Civil partnerships came into existence in 2004 and the legislation defines them as a 'relationship between two people of the same sex'. When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 legalised same sex marriage, same sex-couples had two options as to how to formalise their relationship in law - marriage or civil partnership - whereas heterosexual couples could only marry.
Since March 2014, same sex-couples have been able to choose whether to enter a civil partnership or to marry. This has not been possible for mixed-sex couples, which led Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan to argue that the law was discriminatory.
The government accepted the inequality between same sex and different sex couples, but argued that it needed to have time to assemble sufficient information to allow a confident decision to be made about the future of civil partnerships. This ruling overturns a previous judgement made by the Court of Appeal, which rejected the couple's claim, in February 2017.
How does a civil partnership compare to marriage?
- There are no religious links as there are with marriage.
- A civil partnership and marriage provide legal and financial protection for both parties in the event of the relationship ending. (If a couple live together and have no marriage or civil partnership those protections do not exist).
- Some people object to marriage calling it an institution and flag the associations with property and patriarchy.
In this case the judges ruled that current UK law was "incompatible" with human rights laws on discrimination and the right to a private and family life. More than 130,000 people have signed an online petition in support of civil partnerships for everyone. There is an irony that the way in which relationship equality for same sex couples came about in the 21st century had the impact of creating inequality between them and different sex couples.
The couple's barrister Karon Monaghan QC told the court her clients had "deep-rooted and genuine ideological objections to marriage" and are "not alone" in their views.
There are around 63,000 couples in civil partnerships in the UK and some 3.3 million co-habiting couples. Whilst a change in the law to enable civil partnership to heterosexual couples may well have been placed firmly on the government's agenda, for the 3.3 million co-habiting couples unless they are able to enter into a civil partnership their legal position remains dicey.
Currently, the law surrounding co-habiting couples is a complicated mess and whilst the government have historically said they will address this, in response to lobbying from Resolution and other organisations, they have failed to do so. Perhaps this ruling will mean that the government will now have to address not only how quickly they can enable heterosexual couples to access civil partnerships but also address the serious inequality of legislation there is in place to protect the millions of people (many of whom have children) that cohabit as they either do not wish to or have religious objections to marriage.
Martin Loat, Chairman of the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign, said: "There is only one possible way forward - giving everyone the right to a civil partnership - and we urge the government to seize this opportunity to announce it will end this injustice now."