Hundreds of same-sex couples still opting for civil partnerships, despite option of marriage

Hundreds of same-sex couples are still opting to enter civil partnerships in England and Wales instead of marriages, data has confirmed.

Civil partnerships were introduced by the Labour government in 2004 as a segregated form of union only open to same-sex couples.

(Stock photo)

Gay couples were later allowed to marry when the Coalition government passed the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, but civil partnerships were preserved as a separate option.

Although the number of civil partnerships fell sharply in the years following the introduction of same-sex marriage, data this week confirmed there is still a steady stream of couples choosing to form partnerships.

The Office for National Statistics today revealed that 908 same-sex couples formed civil partnerships in England and Wales in 2017.

While this is down significantly down from the average of around 6,000 prior to equal marriage, it demonstrates that a significant number of couples still see them as a legitimate alternative.

The number of couples entering civil partnerships rose 2% year-on-year, up from 890 in 2016.

Demographics suggest that they majority of civil partnerships are now formed by male couples, whereas female couples are more likely to opt for a same-sex marriage.

Couples choose civil partnerships instead of marriage for a range of reasons, including disagreements with the institution of marriage, or religious beliefs.

The two forms of union are considered equal in UK law, though marriages are more likely to be recognised as legal unions overseas.

Earlier this year the government raised the possibility that it could abolish civil partnerships or close off the system to new couples.

A report on their future stated: “If demand for civil partnerships remains low and this becomes a stable position, this might suggest that same-sex couples no longer see this as a relevant way of recognising their relationships, and that Government should consider abolishing or phasing out civil partnerships entirely.”

The report added that “if significant demand for civil partnerships remains over time, this may indicate that the institution still has relevance,” leaving the door open to the possibility of keeping civil partnerships and opening them to opposite-sex couples.

Continuing civil partnerships in their current form may be unsustainable in the long run, as courts have already ruled that opposite-sex couples should be afforded the same choice between marriage or civil partnership.

Nicola Haines, Vital Statistics Outputs Branch, Office for National Statistics, said: “Despite the introduction of marriages for same-sex couples in March 2014, the number of same-sex couples choosing to form civil partnerships has increased slightly for the second consecutive year.

“Almost two-thirds of couples entering into a civil partnership in 2017 were male and more than half of all civil partners were aged 50 years or above.

“However (…) male couples [account] for less than half of all marriages between same-sex couples while only 16% of those marrying a partner of the same-sex were aged 50 and over.”

Huw Thomas, Director of Policy at relationship support charity Relate, said: “As today’s statistics show, many same sex couples are still opting for a civil partnership, despite now having the right to marry. Relate celebrates the fact that same sex couples now have the option to publicly show their commitment in a way that suits them.

“The government will be looking at these statistics closely when deciding whether to abolish civil partnerships, phase them out, or extend the right to register one to opposite sex couples. More research is needed to understand people’s reasons for opting for civil partnership over marriage.

“It’s likely that many are drawn to civil partnerships because they associate marriage with patriarchy but still want legal rights, financial protection, and to recognise their commitment to each other. These are also some of the reasons why a number of heterosexual couples may opt for a civil partnership if it were available to them.

“At Relate we believe everyone should have the choice to recognise their relationship in a way that works for them so given the clear demand, extending the right to register a civil partnership to everyone, rather than abolishing them altogether surely makes more sense. Our law needs to keep up with changes in our society and we are also in favour of increasing the legal rights of cohabitating couples.”