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14th November 2016

Is marriage enough?

The Court of Appeal has recently heard the case of heterosexual couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan who want to enter into a civil partnership instead of a marriage.

Thrings associate solicitor Victoria Barnett comments on the case. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan have stated that marriage is a social institution not suited to their own circumstances. Finding that a civil partnership better suits their world view, they are fighting for their right to enter into the legal contract – currently only available to same-sex couples.

Following the introduction of civil partnerships in 2004, many campaigned against a two-tier system that still prejudiced the legal rights of homosexual couples. This resulted in same-sex marriage being introduced in the UK in 2013.

Charles and Rebecca are challenging the fact that their choices as a heterosexual couple are now more limited than those of a same-sex couple. They argue that by not being given the choice between marriage and civil partnership, the state has unlawfully interfered with their right to a private life and a family life.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled against Charles and Rebecca, stating that the UK was under no obligation to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. Essentially, the court’s reasoning was simple – if the couple wished to benefit from the rights and laws enjoyed by married couples, they should get married.

Refusing to accept the verdict, the couple took their case to the Court of Appeal on 2 November, hoping for the decision to be overturned.

Beyond what the legal frameworks represent to different people, there are some legal differences between a civil partnership and marriage.

Although the financial responsibilities of civil partners towards each other are similar to those in divorce settlements, important factors such as the grounds on which the formal relationships can be ended still diverge.

Civil partners can also experience restrictions as a result of differential treatment concerning overseas properties and investments. A relationship deemed formalised by a civil partnership in the UK is not always recognised in foreign jurisdictions, gender aside, and this can also have tax consequences.

The legal differences between a civil partnership and a marriage are, however, not the main issue in this case. Instead, it is the freedom to choose a legal framework that better represents the changing values in our society.

Ideas around what constitutes a family model are evolving and some people are missing out on the benefits offered by the system as a result of these traditional rules being imposed.

No matter how far we may think we have come in recent years, gender and sexual orientation continue to dictate the confines of a couple’s relationship.

Thrings will be looking to the Court of Appeal’s judgement with interest.

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