FAQ: Why will same-sex marriage be legal only in England and Wales? And other questions

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PinkNews.co.uk has many readers across the UK and the world and so we have been sent in many questions relating to the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act this week. Here are some of the questions and the answers.

When will the first same-sex marriages take place?
No one knows the answer to this question. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the government department responsible for equalities, has said that they must take place by the Summer of 2014. We expect that they will take place earlier, more than likely in the Spring.

Why can’t couples get married straight away?
In some other countries, same-sex marriages were held almost immediately after the law being , while in England and Wales they will take longer. This was also the case with civil partnerships, where there was a year’s wait. In part it is to ensure that all of the relevant changes are made to secondary legislation that refers to a married couple. There are also other administrative changes to be made too. PinkNews published a costing of these changes earlier this year.

In addition, government sources have told us that the Westminster government is hoping that Scotland could introduce same-sex marriage at the same time. This would mean that gay couples throughout the mainland of the UK will be able to marry, wherever they live.

Why will gay couples be able to choose between a marriage or a civil partnership but straight couples can only marry?
The Prime Minister said this law was passed to strengthen and not weaken marriage, but there were many debates about opposite sex civil partnerships in Parliament. A review will be conducted by the DCMS into opposite sex civil partnerships and many expect that they will be allowed or the government will be forced to abolish same-sex civil partnerships and convert all couples to a marriage. A legal case is still pending in the European Court of Human Rights about the ban on opposite sex civil partnerships.

We are in a civil partnership already, how will we become married?
Once same-sex marriages are being held, you will be able to fill in a form to convert your civil partnership to a marriage. You do not have to hold another ceremony if you do so, but you can if you wish. The length of your marriage will begin at the date you held your civil partnership ceremony, not the date you converted to a marriage.

What was The Queen’s role?
The UK is a constitutional monarchy. This means that bills are only passed into law when The Queen grants her Royal Assent. This is purely ceremonial and constitutional as she has no role to play in the political process. As Queen, she has passed every single reform into law for both gay and trans people in the UK beginning with the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967.

Why will same-sex marriage only be legal in England and Wales?
The UK stands for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Within Great Britain there are three nations, England, Scotland and Wales.

So this means that there are three judicial systems in the UK; a combined system for England and Wales, one for Scotland and one for Northern Ireland. Each has its own peculiarities of law, with Scotland being based on civil law, while the other two are based on common law. Many domestic issues including marriage (with the exception of Wales) are devolved to the relevant legislatures. In the case of Scotland, its Parliament, and for Northern Ireland, its assembly. The UK Parliament in Westminster dictates marriage law for England and Wales only, just like it does for crime and justice.

When will Scotland have same-sex marriage?
A similar bill to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has been tabled in the Scottish Parliament. It will debate this bill, Marriage And Civil Partnership (Scotland) soon. However, it will only be voted on by MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament). As Scotland is a one chamber Parliament, it may pass with more ease than in England and Wales where it had to complete the process in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. A full explanation of the situation in Scotland is here.

Is Northern Ireland going to have same-sex marriage?
The short answer is no. There is currently no bill proposed for the Northern Ireland Assembly and previous attempts to introduce similar legislation to the law that passed in England and Wales have failed. Gay married couples will be considered as being in a same-sex civil partnership from next year. The main benefits of a marriage, such as tax and immigration status will be the same as for a married couple. However, gay couples will continue to be banned from having their relationships solemnised by law in churches, synagogues and Quaker meeting houses that wish to perform same-sex marriages.

The situation is not unique to marriage, abortion is another example where the law is very different in the mainland of the UK than it is in Northern Ireland. As a side note, the Republic of Ireland, the part of the island that is not a member of the UK, will hold a referendum on same-sex marriage next year.

A case that is still pending at the European Court of Human Rights could result in Northern Ireland having to introduce the same laws as in England and Wales and in Scotland.

Why could Scottish and Northern Irish MPs vote on marriage in England and Wales?
This is a very good question, it’s known in Westminster as the West Lothian question. Tam Dalyell, then the Labour MP for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian, asked this question in a 1977 debate on devolution: “For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

In the end, the devolution that was introduced following the election of Tony Blair in 1997 did not result in Wales having its own Parliament, instead it has an assembly with limited powers. Wales also shares a legal system with England meaning that some issues must be debated in the main UK Parliament. However, the question holds true in relation to marriage in the case of Scottish and Northern Irish MPs.

Since Scotland has had its own Parliament, Scottish MPs have voted through controversial legislation for England and Wales that did not have any impact on their constituents. One example is the the controversial Higher Education Act 2004, that increased the fees that students in England and Wales but not Scotland would pay at university.

In the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, a large number of Northern Irish MPs voted against same-sex marriage, even though it would not impact on their constituencies.