Civil Partnership

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 continued to stigmatise same-sex couples. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force on 5 December 2005 and many couples 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.

This page has free information about:

How to register as Civil Partners?

Registration is very similar to getting married in England, with the following main differences:

  • There is no religious ceremony and the registration can only happen in a register office or other approved premises. Since there is now legislation against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the supply of goods and services, a hotel or other approved location could not refuse civil partnership registrations if they allow marriages. No religious service can be carried out as part of a civil partnership registration. This does not mean that once the registration is finished, a service could not follow.
  • When people get married in England they become husband and wife at the moment when the second of them says “I do” or the alternative vow. At a civil partnership registration there are no prescribed vows or words and the partners become civil partners only when everyone has signed the civil partnership document.
  • For binational same-sex couples problems may arise because they can in many cases not get married or become civil partners in the foreign country and so only have the option of getting the foreign partner to the UK to register here. There is some more free information on the page about international aspects of civil partnership.

For details of how to register, please contact your local register office, which is part of your local council. You do not need to register where you live and you can also register in Scotland.

Remaining Discrimination

One main issue is that civil partnership is not called marriage, so that gay men and lesbians who are civil partners and not married are immediately recognisable on paper as being gay or lesbian.

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 regimes 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, 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.

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 [2006] UKHL 11).

Andrea Woelke is an expert on civil partnership and has written the leading textbook on the topic.


12 May 2016 by Andrea Woelke