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What is the difference between civil partnership and equal marriage?

To mark the anniversary of the first same sex marriage in England, we compare the differences between same sex marriage and civil partnerships.

29 March 2018 marks the fourth anniversary of the first ever same sex marriage in England. Four years on, we compare the differences between civil partnership and equal marriage for same sex couples.

The statistics

The number of same-sex couple families in the UK has been increasing steadily since 1996.

  • Same sex cohabiting families: 101,000
  • Civil partner couple families: 55,000
  • Same sex married couple families: 34,000

(Source: ONS: Families and Households: 2017)

  • In 2015 there were 6,493 marriages between same-sex couples;
  • 56% were between female couples;
  • Same-sex couples mostly solemnised their marriages in civil ceremonies; there were only 44 religious ceremonies accounting for 0.7% of all marriages of same-sex couples.
  • A further 9,156 same-sex couples converted their civil partnership into a marriage; Of these conversions, 48% were between male couples while 52% were between female couples.
  • 890 civil partnerships were formed in England and Wales in 2016

“This [2015] is the first full year for which marriages were available for same-sex couples and they accounted for 2.6% of all marriages.”

Nicola Haines, Vital Statistics Outputs Branch, Office for National Statistics Follow Vital Statistics Outputs Branch on Twitter

(Source: ONS: Marriages in England and Wales: 2015 and ONS: Civil Partnerships in England and Wales: 2016)

What are the differences between Civil Partnership and Equal Marriage?

Fundamentally, and from a legal perspective, there are no major differences between civil partnerships and marriage but there are some differences. View a more detailed analysis.

In summary the main differences are:

  Marriage Civil Partnership
How to describe the relationship Married couples cannot call themselves ‘civil partners’ for legal purposes. Civil partners cannot call themselves ‘married’ for legal purposes.
How to enter into either civil partnership or marriage Marriages are solemnized by saying a prescribed form of words. Civil partnerships are registered by signing the civil partnership document, with no words required to be spoken.
Marriages can be conducted through a civil ceremony, or a religious ceremony (subject to provisos). The formation of a civil partnership is an entirely civil event. Civil partners can choose to add a ceremony (religious or not) to follow the formation of their civil partnership.
Notice of marriage is given by each party in the registration district in which they have lived for the previous 7 days Notice of civil partnership is given by each partner anywhere within the local authority in which they have lived for the previous 7 days.
Marriages are registered on paper, in a hard copy register. The details of civil partnerships are recorded in an electronic register.
Certificates Marriage certificates include the names of only the fathers of the parties. Civil partnership certificates include the names of both parents of the parties.
Divorce / Dissolution

Also see * below
Marriage is ended by divorce, by obtaining a decree absolute. Civil partnerships are ended by a dissolution order.

* There are also some variations of grounds to either annul or divorce the other party. A family lawyer can explain the differences, which relate to the reason given to the court for either the annulment or the divorce. There may also be some differences in State Pension provision.

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How to convert a Civil Partnership to a Marriage

The process involves provision of information or declarations and there are 5 different procedures available depending upon a couples’ circumstances.  

Civil partners may be able to choose between a purely administrative process for the conversion or alternatively a conversion ceremony which may take place at secular or religious premises that are approved for the solemnisation of same sex marriages.

If a civil partnership is being entered into outside England & Wales for the most part this cannot be converted to a marriage in England & Wales (subject to 2 conversions which are outside the scope of this article).

However, parties to a same sex marriage entered outside England & Wales are treated as being married in England & Wales regardless of whether the particular country provided for same sex marriage at the time the 2013 Act came into force.

Decline in Civil Partnerships since the Introduction of Equal Marriage

Although civil partnerships still out number marriages amongst same sex couples, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of same sex couples entering into civil partnerships following the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.

The National Office of Statistics reported in 2015 that civil partnership formations have declined by 85% since 2013 although in 2016 the 890 civil partnerships formed in England and Wales saw an increase of 3.4% compared with 2015; this is the first annual increase since the introduction of marriages of same-sex couples was announced in 2013.

More same sex couples are choosing equal marriage over civil partnership, leading some commentators to suggest that civil partnerships could become obsolete at some point in the future and could either be phased out or completely abolished. However, over 3,000 civil partnerships have been formed since same sex marriage was introduced and there is still some demand for civil partnerships.

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) considers that it is too early to fully evaluate the impact of the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples on civil partnerships – more years of data are required. GEO will therefore continue to monitor the number of civil partnership formations taking place in England and Wales.

Despite the fall in interest amongst same sex couples, there is an increasing appetite amongst opposite sex couples to enter into a civil partnership. A court case brought by a London opposite sex couple, Steinfeld and Keidan is proceeding to the Supreme Court later this year.

Tania Derrett-Smith is an Associate in the family law team and Fiona Turner is a Partner in the family law team at national law firm Weightmans

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