Civil Partnerships

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This originally appeared in BCN issue 71

It used to be nice and simple: the state told bisexuals that our mixed-sex relationships were ‘real’ and could be recognised in marriage, inheritance rights and so forth, while our same-sex partnerships were less worthy and could be ignored.

All that changed when the Civil Partnership bill passed the House of Lords on 17th November last year and received Royal Assent on 18th November to become the Civil Partnership Act 2004. There was far less outcry about it than one might have expected: perhaps because it went through during the same week as hunting with dogs was outlawed. It will take a while for the systems for registering civil partnership to be set up, and for registrars and others to be trained. But we can expect the first civil partnerships to be available this autumn.

BCN caught up with the Scottish Equality Network’s Ailsa Spindler to find out what civil partnerships have to offer and the differences between them and marriage.

OK, let’s start with the basics, who can get a civil partnership — and apart from gender is it any different from who can get married?

Two people of the same sex, who are over 16, can enter a civil partnership, so long as neither is already married or in another civil partnership, and so long as they are not very closely related (sisters, father and son, etc). In England and Wales, but not in Scotland, 16 and 17 year-olds need their parents’ permission to enter a civil partnership.

These rules are identical to marriage, except that marriage is for mixed-sex couples, and civil partnership for same-sex couples.

How come it’s not marriage then?

The main difference, apart from the name, is that a marriage can be started in one of two ways: either by registering at the register office, or by a religious ceremony recognised in law. Civil partnership can only be started by registering. Some churches would like to be able to conduct legally recognised civil partnership services, but the government refused to allow this.

In Scotland, it is not yet possible for a same-sex couple to jointly adopt a child, and it will not be possible, until adoption law is changed, for a civil partner to adopt their partner’s child as step-parent. A child cannot be fostered in Scotland with a same-sex couple. These restrictions do not apply in England and Wales.

And what benefits does it bring?

To answer this in full detail would take several pages. In short, the obligations and benefits of civil partnership are identical to those of marriage. These include (details here are for Scotland; the rules for England and Wales are similar):
– The obligation to support one another financially
– Stronger domestic abuse protections than for couples who cohabit without marrying or entering a civil partnership
– Strong rules for splitting property on dissolving the partnership: the general rule is that each partner gets half of the partnership property
– Strong rights to inherit a significant part of your partner’s estate on their death, whether or not they have written a will. Such inheritance is free of tax
– A survivor’s pension from your partner’s pension scheme after they die
– A foreign citizen, from outwith the European Union, who registers a civil partnership with a UK citizen can live in this country with their partner

Are there any benefits – or drawbacks – that either marriage or civil partnerships have over the other?

As noted above, religious celebrants cannot conduct civil partnerships, only marriages. This discriminates against same-sex couples of faith. In Scotland, adoption and fostering law still discriminates against civil partners compared to married people.

Because civil partnership is not marriage (despite being virtually identical), it is possible that fewer overseas countries will recognise UK civil partnerships. However, few other countries recognise same-sex couples in any way yet. (See below)

More generally, if you don’t like the religious significance or patriarchal history of marriage, you may welcome the fact that civil partnership has a new name and is symbolically different, although the legal effects are virtually identical.

If on the other hand you want full equality with mixed-sex couples, including the symbolism and/or the religious connections, you’ll probably see civil partnership as second class compared to marriage.

For these reasons, the Equality Network’s view is that both civil partnership and marriage should be available to all couples whether same-sex or mixed-sex, to give everyone the choice. Belgium and the Netherlands are two examples of countries which do this already.

What about recognition if you move to another country? EU states are supposed to recognise one another’s driving licences and marriage certificates for example, will it be possible to move to other countries in Europe and have your partnership automatically recognised – and what about further afield like Canada?

We do not yet know which other countries will recognise UK civil partnerships, and for what purposes. That will be up to the law of other countries to decide. It seems likely that those EU countries which provide civil partnership for their own citizens will recognise UK civil partnership, and this includes the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and France (although the French civil partnership scheme is weak). It may be that non-EU states that have civil partnership will also recognise UK civil partnership (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and some US states and Canadian provinces). It is less likely that countries or states that have same-sex marriage (the Netherlands, Belgium, most of Canada, and Massachusetts at present) will recognise UK civil partnership as a marriage.

What we do know, because it’s in the UK Civil Partnership Act, is that same-sex civil partnership or same-sex marriage in another country will be recognised in the UK as civil partnership.

How do the proposals for dissolving an RCP compare with divorce?

Effectively the rules are the same. You dissolve a civil partnership in the same way as getting a divorce, by applying to court. In Scotland, the main grounds for dissolution are unreasonable behaviour (for example, domestic abuse), non-cohabitation for two years if both partners agree to the dissolution, or non-cohabitation for five years if only one partner wants the dissolution. The Family Law (Scotland) Bill just introduced in the Scottish Parliament proposes reducing the waiting periods for dissolution by non-cohabitation to one year if both partners agree and two years if only one partner wants the dissolution. These rules are exactly the same as for divorce.

A divorce can also be obtained on grounds of adultery, which is defined as heterosexual intercourse with someone other than the spouse. This does not apply as a separate ground for civil partnership dissolution, but it is effectively included in the unreasonable behaviour ground for dissolution – sexual infidelity of any kind can constitute unreasonable behaviour.

As with divorce, the court granting the dissolution may make orders to divide the property between the two former partners, and for residence and contact arrangements for children.

And is there any official date when they are supposed to become available?

The law comes in to force on December 5th.

The Equality Network campaigns for human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Scotland, to bring about changes in laws and institutions to remove the inequalities facing LGBT people