The New Year has seen a change in the law governing civil partnerships, with this type of relationship being opened up to opposite sex couples for the first time. The first registrations of Civil Partnerships for opposite sex couples took place on 31 December 2019.

Same sex couples have been able to enter into civil partnerships since 2004, and since 2015 the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 has enabled same sex couples to marry. This means that since 2015, same sex couples have been able to choose whether they wish to enter into a civil partnership or to marry. Opposite sex couples however, until now, have only been able to enter into marriage.

While many couples were happy to enter into marriage, some wanted to formalise their relationship but wanted an alternative to traditional marriage. The reasons for this vary but might be a feeling that marriage is a traditional institution that does not reflect a modern relationship, or its historical connotations to religion that a couple may not feel is appropriate for them. However, the position as it stood meant that opposite sex couples who did not get married were in a situation where they might be living together without a formal relationship status. The law for unmarried couples and married couples is very different, with serious legal implications for both options. Many people do not consider these when making the decision as to whether or not to marry however. This meant that opposite sex couples were in a situation where they had to choose whether to marry even though they might not feel aligned with the institution of marriage, or risk having more limited rights due to being unmarried.

One couple felt strongly enough that this was not a fair situation that they mounted a legal challenge, arguing that the law was discriminatory. They were successful in the Supreme Court and it was declared that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, as only same sex couples could enter into these partnerships. The Government has therefore changed the law to allow opposite sex couples to enter into civil partnerships.

This means that all couples who wish to formalise their relationship now have a choice as to whether they wish to enter into a civil partnership or marry. Entering into a civil partnership will give a couple largely similar rights to those of a married couple. These cover property rights, tax benefits, and inheritance, as well as on the breakdown of a relationship. However, something to note is that while UK marriages are usually recognised by other countries, that is not necessarily the case with civil partnerships. If you wished to live or work abroad, you should check whether that country will recognise your civil partnership and ensure you retain those rights and protections.

This is considered a positive step, providing couples with more choice. One area left unaddressed however are the rights of couples who live together but do not enter into a civil partnership or marriage. It is important to note that 'common law marriage' is not something that applies in England and Wales, and so the only way to obtain the full legal rights and responsibilities is to either marry or enter into a civil partnership.