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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Heterosexual Civil Partnerships: How Have They Been Received?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

Civil Partnerships were introduced under the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which defined them as ‘a relationship between two people of the same sex’under section 1(1), granting same-sex couples with a formalised relationship status for the first time in England and Wales. They then became one of two jurisdictions to grant more opportunities for the formalisation of relationships to same-sex couples than heterosexual couples through the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which allowed same-sex couples to marry in both civil and religious ceremonies.

Image Source: N. Hellen and C. Wheeler, ‘Civil partnerships to go straight’ The Times (London, 10 December 2017) <> accessed 14 February 2020

This changed, however, following the government response to the declaration of incompatibility given in Steinfeld[1] as Civil Partnerships have now been extended to heterosexual couples by virtue of section 2 of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registrations Etc.) Act 2019, with the first having been allowed to take place on New Year’s Eve 2019. This decision was met with a range of different opinions and debate as to whether this was a necessary change, with some believing that civil partnerships should have been eradicated and others believing that they should be reserved for only same-sex couples. But has any of this changed now that the legislation has come into effect?

Prior to the government’s decision to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples one line of thought, expressed by a number of academics, was that civil partnerships should either be kept and extended to all couples as an alternative to marriage or abolished altogether. Statistics, however, showed that there was a large number of same-sex couples continuing to register for civil partnerships, despite having equal access to marriage, and very few who chose to convert their civil partnerships to marriage[2]. This caused many to believe that it would be a ‘cruel irony’[3]to simply abolish civil partnerships altogether and it is thus likely that this influenced the government’s decision to choose extension over abolition. Such a decision was met with praise from a number of those in cohabiting relationships, often opposed to marriage on ideological grounds, who would soon be able to formalise their relationship in order to receive the same protections as those in a married couple[4]. The decision, however, also received a number of criticisms, with members of the LGBTQ+ community choosing to speak out against the decision as a result of the momentum and campaigns behind it only seeming to appear once equal access to marriage was achieved.

Silas, for example, stated that ‘it has taken mixed-sex couples only four [years] to achieve the equality we craved, fought for and eventually won’.[5]

Although this is a position with which we must sympathise, it could not be used in order to justify a reversal of the government decision in order to allow for the inequality found by the Supreme Court in Steinfeld to continue.

What are the Opinions now?

The House of Bishops of the Church of England, for example, have recently stated that they believe those in civil partnerships, whether they are of the same or opposite sex, should be sexually abstinent, with heterosexual marriage remaining the only appropriate place for sexual activity, but have assured that those who choose to enter into a civil partnership will still receive sensitive and pastoral ministry from them.[6]. This response has, however, since been met with backlash from a number of different activists who have stated that the statement was predicted but not welcomed.[7]This suggests that tensions are likely to remain over this topic, despite it being accepted as the law, in terms of how they are perceived for both same and opposite sex couples. With regards to the previous argument that civil partnerships should be extended as an alternative to marriage in order to encourage cohabitants to protect themselves, there were uncertainties as to whether this would be seen as a desirable alternative by cohabitants and thus whether it would be truly effective in this goal. A large part of this concern stemmed from the fact that there are surveys of more than 1,000 cohabiting couples which show that more than one third of them are unaware of the rights that they do and do not have in their cohabitational relationship.[8]

This is a problem in that if they do not realise that they are not currently protected by the law then it is unlikely that they will choose to enter into a civil partnership to overcome this. It does, however, remain unclear as to how many cohabitants will choose to enter into civil partnerships and so the long-term effects cannot truly be seen. Although their extension has been accepted it is likely that only time will tell whether the tensions surrounding this will be settled and whether it will be considered as an attractive alternative by cohabitants.

Natasha Sieradzki

Feature Writer

Family Law


[1] R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) v Secretary of State for the International Development [2018] UKSC 32

[2] A. Hayward, ‘Equal Civil Partnerships, Discrimination and the Indulgence of Time: R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) v Secretary of State for International Development’ (2019) 82(5) MLR 922,933

[3] A. Hayward, ‘Justifiable Discrimination: The Case of Opposite-Sex Civil Partnerships’ (2017) 76 Cambridge Law Journal 243, 246

[4] H. Yusuf, ‘Civil partnerships: Couples tell us why they want one’ BBC News (London, 2 February 2018) <> accessed 3 December 2019

[5] S. Silas, ‘Why I won’t be raising a glass to mixed-sex civil partnerships’ The Guardian (London, 3 October 2018) <> accessed 3 December 2019

[6] G. Swerling, ‘Civil partnerships should be no more than ‘sexually abstinent friendships’, Church of England Bishops rule’ The Telegraph (London, 23 January 2020) <> accessed 13 February 2020

[7] ibid

[8] S. Brookes and A. Pearse, ‘New Year, new civil partnerships: the first heterosexual civil partnerships will be registered on 31 December 2019’ (Mills & Reeve) <> accessed 3 December 2019

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