Battle for heterosexual civil partnerships goes to Supreme Court

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Nov 20, 2017
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Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld want the legal benefits of marriage without the social pressures

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Civil partnerships for heterosexuals, which are still banned in law despite that position being ruled to be a breach of human rights, will be tested in a landmark challenge in the Supreme Court in the new year.

The case looms as figures show a rise in demand for civil partnership among heterosexual couples and The Times launches its campaign for family law reform in conjunction with Marriage Foundation.

Official figures also show that for the first time, there is an increase in demand among same-sex couples for such arrangements, despite the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013. There were 890 civil partnerships formed in England and Wales in 2016, a rise of 3.4 per cent compared with 2015 and the first rise since same-sex couples were allowed to marry in 2013, figures from the Office of National Statistics released in September show.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who sought to register a civil partnership but were denied because they are “not of the same sex”, first took the government to court in 2014. Their campaign has support from MPs from across parties and 78,000 people have signed a petition.

The couple, who have two children, wish to form a civil partnership because it “captures the essence of our relationship and values”. They see civil partnerships as a simple, modern contract conferring almost identical rights and responsibilities as marriage but without its social pressures. In February the Court of Appeal stated that the current ban could not continue indefinitely but, in a two-to-one split ruling, gave the government limited time to decide on the future status of civil partnerships.

The couple’s solicitor, Louise Whitfield, from London law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, said that it was “very significant” that they had been granted permission to go to the Supreme Court, which recognised “the great public importance of this issue”.

Law ‘fails’ cohabiting couples as myths prevail

Cohabiting couples are being failed by current legislation as they labour under the myth that they have similar rights over property to those who are married, should they break up, warn leading family lawyers.

Resolution, the 6,000-strong association of family lawyers and advice workers, warned over the weekend that under the present law it was possible for a couple to live together for decades, have children, and yet for one partner to leave the other and pay nothing when the relationship breaks down. “Should these couples separate, they currently have little or no legal protection, despite the myth of the common law marriage,” said Nigel Shepherd, the group’s chairman and a partner at the national law firm Mills & Reeve.

Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in Britain with numbers more than doubling from 1.5 million to 3.3 million between 1996 and 2016, according to ONS figures. They account for 17.5 per cent of families in the UK and are set to rise further.

Resolution is shortly to launch a campaign to give some legal rights to unmarried couples, a reform backed also by The Times and Marriage Foundation and recommended by the Law Commission ten years ago. 

Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman of Marriage Foundation, said: “The myth that marriage is just a piece of paper and there is such a thing as a common law marriage has been perniciously dangerous, giving people false security, reducing the need to establish a mutual commitment and proving unfair in many cases to those who have relied on trust, only to find, when their partner leaves them, that they are left with nothing.”

See State has to clean up when cohabiting relationships fail

The effect of parental fighting on teenagers is a controversial area

Niall Carson/PA

Family breakdown biggest risk to girls’ mental health

Family breakdown poses the single biggest risk to children’s mental health once they reach their teens, a new study suggests (Greg Hurst writes).

Analysis by Marriage Foundation of almost 11,000 families has found that having parents who split up is the strongest single influence on girls’ mental health, particularly on emotional problems. It was the joint strongest factor in boys’ mental health, with strong links to difficult behaviour.

Family Matters, the Times and Marriage Foundation campaign, has won support from senior figures in the judiciary, lawyers, peers and MPs in its demand for reformed legislation on divorce and relationships. It is calling for fairer, modernised laws to encourage marriage, make divorce less painful and protect the mental health of children whose parents break up.

The most recent study will be controversial as it seeks to refocus debate on family structure. One expert urged caution, saying it challenged international research that suggests parental infighting is the primary influence on children’s wellbeing and life chances, regardless of relationship status.

Meanwhile, another set of research seen by The Times reveals that nearly three-quarters of adults say the government should do more to prevent families from breaking up. The Centre for Social Justice, an influential right-wing think tank, says Theresa May must speak up about the damaging effect of family splits, which sees Britain near the top of an international league table. It argues for a new Whitehall unit with a remit to strengthen families, led by a minister with cabinet rank, as a counter-weight to the government equalities office, which promotes equality for women, and gay, lesbian and transgender people.

The centre also appeals for ministers to make the case for marriage, stable relationships and the need to support families across government policy, using evidence of the damaging impact of family breakdown. The proposals, backed by 50 Conservative MPs, will be seen as another attempt to push the prime minister to embrace a more traditionalist agenda as she takes Britain out of the EU.

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