Earlier this year (2018), the Supreme Court ruled that it was discriminatory that civil partnerships were only available to same-sex couples, following this position being challenged by a heterosexual couple who claimed that this option should be available to them and called for the extension of civil partnerships, and indeed to all couples. The Court was unanimous in its decision that the current law was incompatible with human rights legislation. Whilst this ruling sends what appears to be a clear message that statute needs to be changed, this ruling in itself does not oblige the Government to act. There are arguments from some quarters that civil partnerships are not as relevant as they once were given the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation in 2014, however, there is also the argument that extending civil partnerships, rather than abolishing them is the preferable approach. It is the latter which seems to be the more likely way forward.

New data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in August 2018 has confirmed that there have been two consecutive annual increases in the number of same-sex couples choosing to form civil partnerships in England and Wales since the introduction of marriages for same-sex couples in March 2014.  In total there were 908 civil partnerships formed in England and Wales in 2017, an increase of 2% compared with 2016.

Since the introduction of marriage being available to same-sex couples in 2014, the percentage of civil partnerships formed between men has remained higher than for women.  During 2017 almost two-thirds of civil partnership formations were between men, but overall the increase in the number of civil partnership formations during this period resulted solely from an 8% rise in civil partnerships formed between women.  Civil partnership formation among men actually decreased by slightly.  The latest data released by the ONS on marriages show that in 2015 44% of same-sex couples marrying were male.  The data therefore suggests that over recent year’s civil partnerships in England and Wales have been more regularly formed between males, and same sex marriages have been more likely to be formed between women.

Just over half of those entering a civil partnership in 2017 were aged 50 years and over; this compares with 19% prior to the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples. In 2017, the average age of men forming a civil partnership was slightly higher than women.

London has continued to be by far the region with the highest number of civil partnership formations, and in 2017 37% of all formations in England and Wales took place in London. The London Borough of Islington had the highest number of civil partnership formations of all local authorities in England and Wales, and Brighton and Hove and Southwark were second and third. Wales had the second lowest number of civil partnership formations in 2017, after the North East of England, and Cardiff had the highest number of civil partnership formations of all Welsh local authorities.

There were 1,217 civil partnership dissolutions granted in England and Wales in 2017, decrease of 7.3% since 2016. This was the first year that the number of dissolutions fell.  Female couples accounted for 57% of all dissolutions in 2017. The overall decrease in civil partnership dissolutions has been the result of a 12% decline in the number of female civil partnership dissolutions. The number of male couples dissolving a civil partnership remained the same.  The average age that civil partnerships are dissolved has increased since 2010 when it was 38.3 years, and in 2017 it was 41.4 years. The average age of men and women dissolving a civil partnership in 2017 was older for men at 42.2 years, compared to women at 40.8 years.

Whilst the statistics present a different picture for men and women and differ depending on location, it very much appears that civil partnerships remain relevant, and having a choice is the case in point, however a couple identifies. Even though there is likely to be serious consideration given to the extension of civil partnerships to all, it took the best part of a decade for same-sex marriage legislation to bring about a change in the law following the introduction of civil partnerships, so if change does come, it may not be particularly quickly.

Further, it may also be relevant to consider the impact that an extension of the availability of civil partnerships to all may have on the ongoing conversation and call for change, for a legal framework to be put in place for the rights of co-habitees. That presently does not exist, and many family law practitioners feel this to be highly unsatisfactory. However, this has been a topic in respect of which reform has been called for over many years already, with no such change forthcoming, so might an extension of civil partnerships to all be a means of further putting off grasping the nettle of change in respect of cohabitation, and that be a means of the cohabitation issue once again being side-stepped, as it is too thorny an area with which to grapple? Only time will tell. It would potentially be seen as much easier by those dealing with legislation, to extend civil partnerships to all, and therefore suggest that co-habitees, however they identify, can regulate their relationships via those, without the need for marriage, rather than having to deal with a whole new statutory framework as has been called for.

Whatever the ultimate legislative outcome, it is unlikely it will happen quickly, so the present unsatisfactory state of affairs may continue for some time to come.

Written by: Sarah Wyburn

Sarah is a director with Wendy Hopkins Family Law, she is highly regarded as a leader in her field when advising on civil partnerships and same sex marriages. If you would like advise on a family law matter, please get in touch.

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