A Bill aiming to create equal civil partnerships has been compromised, suggesting a gloomy outlook for the likelihood of wider family law reforms, writes Hannah Solel
Is it fair that only gay couples can form civil partnerships? Not if you ask Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who this week is raising the matter in Parliament with a private member's bill calling for the right to be extended to straight couples too.
Presently, same-sex couples can enter into either civil partnerships or marriages, while opposite sex couples can only choose marriage, an inequality, which emerged when Parliament legalised gay marriage in 2013.
Loughton, whose Civil Partnership, Marriages and Deaths bill is due to get its second reading in Parliament tomorrow, tells Spear’s: ‘We need an equal civil partnerships level playing field.’ Highlighting his previous experience as shadow children minister, the East Worthing and Shoreham MP explains that as the law stands: ‘There’s an unintended inequality, there’s a child welfare and family stability argument and there’s a protection in the eyes of the law argument for people who don’t realise they have no protections through a common law arrangement.’
Expressing concern about ‘a great ignorance in the law’ about the concept of common law marriage, Loughton says that civil partnerships for heterosexual couples would offer them another route to a legally-recognised relationship aside from marriage. He adds: ‘Many people think there is such a thing as common law wife or husband, that the fact they’re not married but have been living together for some time gives them some protection, whereas in the law there are no such protections.’
There are more than three million cohabiting couples in the UK, according to a 2016 Office of National Statistics report. Resolution, a family law reform campaign organisation, led a week-long national cohabitation awareness campaign in November 2017 to highlight the problem of the lack of legal rights for such couples.
Interestingly, Loughton’s bill returning to Parliament tomorrow is markedly different from the original draft: that provided for a simple amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The new version instead provides for the Home Secretary to report on changing the law on civil partnerships. Justine Greening expressed on the record support for equal civil partnerships to Mr Loughton during her former government role as equalities minister, but January’s cabinet reshuffle saw responsibility for equality policy shift to the Home Secretary.
While this might just be politics as usual, it also sheds light on the difficulties of bringing about reform of family law in Parliament. The last major reform of divorce law was in 1969, when society was very different, and 2013’s Act giving the right of marriage to gay couples was bitterly controversial in some quarters.
However as the case of unmarried couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan shows, the issues Loughton is raising aren’t going away. Indeed, Steinfeld and Keidan will have their argument for establishing equal civil partnerships assessed in the Supreme Court later this year, though it is impossible to predict the court’s conclusion.
In the meantime, MPs are getting their chance this week to show leadership on the issue. Joanne Edwards, head of family law at Forsters — whom Spear’s spoke to prior to the textual changes to Loughton’s bill — welcomed the move, noting that it helped draw attention to the lack of legal rights for cohabitating couples. ‘Extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples would be absolutely appropriate and reflect the changing shape of modern relationships, but absent law reform to protect cohabiting couples, that is only one part of the jigsaw,’ she says.
Brett Frankle, a partner in the family team at Withers, agrees. He notes that dealing with these issues in isolation is perhaps too simplistic and stresses the importance of ‘a much wider review of family law and the rights and remedies people have in the event of an ending of a relationship’. Frankle also suggests there is ‘a disconnect between possibly what people in government are considering and what’s actually happening in practice’.
That much is certain. And even in its diluted form, Loughton’s private member's bill is still to be hailed for its ambition. It should in turn raise the profile of the need for wider reform within family law, but unfortunately it remains far from certain whether the government will listen.
Hannah Solel is a researcher and writer at Spear’s