Article: Goin’ To The Chapel…. But Who Is Getting Married?

The proposal by the current government for the legalisation of same-sex marriage has attracted much attention from the media. The subject matter has created numerous debates addressing issues of equality, human rights, politics, morality and religion, as well as generating various discussions regarding the potential legal effects of such change.

However, the current coalition government have announced that by the next general election, they intend for the law to have changed so that same-sex couples are able to marry, and so that those in a Civil Partnership are able to convert the status of their relationship into a marriage. However, the Home Office has made clear that religious organisations will not be forced to conduct same-sex religious marriages.

So what are the legal differences between a Civil Partnership and marriage? As Civil Partnerships were designed to provide equivalent rights and responsibilities to that of marriage, there are currently few distinctions to be made between the two. The main difference is that married couples are able to use concepts such as adultery or non-consummation as evidence that their marriage has broken down, whilst those wishing to dissolve their Civil Partnership are unable to do the same. By legalising same-sex marriage, the government intends that the reasons for ending a marriage will also be the same, meaning that definitions for same-sex non-consummation and same-sex adultery will be required.

However, when considering the legal consequences following a relationship breakdown, there is very little difference between a married couple getting divorced compared with a Civil Partnership being dissolved. Firstly, the legal procedure and formalities for each is effectively the same. Secondly, when considering financial claims and deciding upon a fair division of the marital assets, the same factors are considered by a Court, whether for a marriage or a Civil Partnership. Such factors include the length of the relationship, the parties’ ages, the income and earning capacity of each party, as well as contributions made by the parties. Furthermore, the Court is able to make the same wide variety of orders regarding property, various capital resources, the parties’ income and pension assets, regardless of whether the relationship breakdown is following the end of a marriage or the end of a Civil Partnership.

Therefore, it is argued by some that the introduction of same-sex marriage is unnecessary given that Civil Partnership offers the same legal rights and responsibilities as those entering into a traditional marriage, including the same legal consequences if either relationship status breaks down. Conversely, those in favour of same-sex marriage argue that as the rights acquired through marriage are to all intents and purposes the same as those rights acquired if entering into a Civil Partnership, it is therefore nonsensical to have a two-tier system that is effectively the same in all but name. Will the government succeed in legalising same-sex marriage? It is far from clear. The only certainty is that the final answer to the government’s marriage proposal is far from being an unequivocal “Yes”.