A straight couple who were previously denied the right to enter into a civil partnership have won a claim at the Supreme Court that they had suffered discrimination.
Civil partnerships are currently available to same-sex couples in the UK. But Wednesday’s landmark case could put pressure on the government to change the law so that partnerships are also open to different-sex couples.
Justices ruled the current restriction on allowing opposite-sex couples to enter into civil partnership was “incompatible” with human rights laws.
But what is the difference between marriage and civil partnership?
Rebecca Steinfeld, 37, and Charles Keidan, 41, who bought the claim, say that while they want a legal union, they have “deep-rooted and genuine ideological objections to marriage”. It is, they say, “historically heteronormative and patriarchal”.
Gay couples were denied access to marriage until 2013, when an amendment to the 2004 Civil Partnership Act allowed same-sex couples to marry in England, Scotland and Wales.
A civil partnership gives a couple similar legal rights in terms of parental responsibilities, property, tax, inheritance and next-of-kin arrangements, to a married couple.
Although evidence from 2017 showed the government was investigating the extension of civil partnerships to include mixed-sex partners, more recent reports have suggested that women and equalities minister Penny Morduant is be more likely to “abolish” all civil partnerships than extend them.
“There has been a consistent desire from the Conservatives to get rid of civil partnerships altogether,” said Lib Dem peer Lynne Featherstone.
Legal experts, including Louise Whitfield, the solicitor acting on behalf of Steinfeld and Keidan, have claimed that the current inequality of civil partnerships brings “the law into disrepute”. So why does the government continue to drag its heels?
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner told HuffPost UK: “It is going to take political capital to change anything in this area of law, because as with all marriage issues it has a religious and conservative element.”
Wagner says a lot of the hesitancy about extending civil partnerships so they are available to all couples comes down to debate around ‘strengthening’ and ‘weakening’ the institution of marriage.
“If you remember, David Cameron’s justification for equal marriage was that it would ‘strengthen’ the institution of marriage. Now if you open the door to [equal] civil partnership, all of a sudden you’ll have people saying they are weakening marriage,” he said. “They are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
In addition, Brexit will only exacerbate any difficulties. “It has put a spanner in the works in terms of taking up legislative time,” Wagner said, adding that heterosexual couples waiting for civil partnerships to be made available to all, “might end up waiting forever.”
Given that like of a timeline, why are some heterosexual couples still so keen to secure a civil partnership? Steinfeld and Keidan say that they don’t want an institution with “patriarchal baggage”.
Kate Stewart, a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, and her partner Matthew also wanted a civil partnership because of their personal beliefs.
As atheists and feminists, they rejected marriage. “We felt very strongly that the patriarchal and religious heritage of marriage was inconsistent with our values,” said Kate. “So we decided we would get one overseas, in the hope that legal recognition [for all couples to enter a civil partnership] was coming here [to the UK], rather than compromise our values and enter a marriage we didn’t want to.”
The pair decided to go to Gibraltar for their civil partnership, which currently is not recognised by UK law.
Campaigning group Equal Civil Partnerships, said in a statement: “The outcome of the case could affect 3.3 million unmarried opposite-sex couples in England and Wales who currently have no legal protections in the case of separation or death and do not enjoy the alternative of a civil partnership available to same-sex couples.”