Civil partnership is a statutory creation for a registered partnership for same-sex couples in the UK, who are not allowed to marry. It is not open to opposite-sex couples. Civil partnership is almost identical to marriage and is often called “gay marriage”, but instead of opening up marriage to same-sex couples as other countries have done, the UK government spent vast amounts of tax payers’ money and of civil servants and parliamentary time to write a parallel law in the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and subsequent secondary legislation. This “separate but equal” approach does of course still stigmatise same-sex couples. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force on 5 December 2005 and many couples have registered since.
Civil partnership is purely defined through its registration process and does not (as marriage does) come with vows to commit for life, although many couples choose to say some similar words before they register as part of the ceremony.
Nor is there a duty to cohabit or a duty to have sex, both of which are at least implied in marriage. Since there is no definition of what the quality of the relationship of civil partners entails, the words “living as if they were civil partners”, which is used in English legislation in many places to describe cohabiting same-sex couples is pretty meaningless.
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Registration is very similar to getting married in England, with the following main differences:
One main issue is that civil partnership is not called marriage, so that gay men and lesbians are immediately recognisable on paper. Although most forms have one tick box for “married/civil partner”, there is no law that demands this and so same-sex couples can easily be identified. Initially the Home Office even planned to stamp “to join civil partner” into passports of foreigners who had been given a visa on the basis of their civil partnership, which would have meant they could not have travelled to countries where homosexuality is still illegal or where there is persecution or discrimination, which may include their home country. Fortunately, that was not implemented. Alternative Family Law does not deal with immigration matters and we recommend you contact Barry O'Leary at Wesley Gryk Solicitors (020 74016887; firstname.lastname@example.org).
State final-salary pension schemes will only pay out survivor’s benefits for years of service after 1988, although widow’s pensions in most schemes and widower’s pensions in some are based on years of services starting from earlier dates. Private occupational schemes only need to use years of service after the civil partnership came into force for survivorship benefits, although most use all years of service. The UK basic state pension is complicated and the benefits are not entirely equal for civil partners as compared to married couples.
On the international level there are countries with same-sex marriage, those with partnership registration forms identical or very similar to marriage, with lesser rights, or in most countries, none at all. Even if there is no domestic right to same-sex marriage, some countries, e.g. Israel and France, still recognise marriage from other countries. Bi-national couples, those moving abroad or any couple having any legal connection with another country could be disadvantaged by the fact that they are civil partners and not married couples. For example while France recognises Dutch same-sex marriage, they do not recognise civil partnership although they have a registration scheme for same-sex and unmarried opposite sex-couples there themselves. This means that the surviving partner of an English couple who have a house in France may have to pay very high death duties on the house when their civil partner dies. This apparently was the situation Fernando Soares found himself in. Apparently France is going to change this law.
The rights arising out of civil partnership are not backdated. Couples who may have been together for years before 2005 could not register, some may have been bereaved then or have to struggle without a survivor’s pension, which they should have received if marriage had been available to them. This is illustrated in a case about the calculation of child maintenance by the child support agency that came to the House of Lords after the Civil Partnership Act 2004, but concerned the time before then. The lesbian woman in that case did not get the same rights she would have had if she had been in an opposite-sex relationship (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions v M  UKHL 11).
Andrea Woelke is an expert on civil partnership and has written the leading textbook on the topic.
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This is an outline of the law, practice and procedure in England and Wales. It should not be taken as specific advice. All families and couples are different. The law may have changed since this was written and we therefore accept no liability for inaccuracies. Where examples are given, your personal circumstances may vary slightly, but the difference may be significant for the outcome of the legal process. Contact us for specific advice on your own circumstances.
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