The New Year brings welcome changes for same sex couples – but mind the gaps

14 January 2014

2014 is set to be a historic year in the realm of family lives following a recent Government announcement. January is traditionally viewed as one of the bleakest months of the year with newspaper headlines boldly proclaiming that every other day is beating the previous one for the highest rates of people seeking divorces. However, amidst those difficult, and rather repetitive, headlines is the recent announcement by Culture Secretary Maria Miller declaring that the first same sex marriages in England and Wales can take place from 29 March 2014, several months earlier than originally anticipated.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 completed its passage through parliament and received royal assent in July 2013 and it was not anticipated that the first same sex marriages would take place until summer 2014.

Although in practice, same sex marriage will confer no additional rights or privileges as currently enjoyed by individuals under civil partnerships, it is a big step towards properly acknowledging the equality of homosexual couples in our society. On a practical, emotional and psychological level, it is important that all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, have the ability to choose to formalise their love and commitment in the same manner.

The introduction of same sex marriage creates an unusual legal anomaly in which gay couples will have more choices available to them than straight couples. Gay couples will be able to choose between civil partnerships and marriage from March 2014, whilst straight couples will continue to have marriage as the only legal way of formalising their relationship. This often leads straight couples falling into the various pitfalls surrounding co-habitation in the all too common misbelief that they automatically gain legal rights and entitlements – for further details on this, see our recent blog  ‘The rise and pitfalls of cohabitation’.

In addition, there is also a technical difference between the dissolution of civil partnership and a divorce in that you cannot dissolve a civil partnership on the grounds of adultery as case law defines adultery as “voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who are not married to each other but one or both of whom is or are married”. This distinction will also apply to same sex marriages although it is hoped that eventually the law will evolve to catch up with demands and needs of modern society.

The Act provides for the ability to convert a civil partnership into a marriage; however the procedure to do this has not yet been provisioned for. The Culture Secretary commented in her recent announcement that the Government hopes to have this mechanism in place for civil partners by the end of 2014.

Furthermore, same sex marriages entered into under foreign law will be recognised as marriages in England and Wales, although foreign civil partnerships will continue to be regarded as civil partnerships in England and Wales.

Equality is often a tricky concept to articulate and even harder to effect, and whereas the Government’s recent announcement is certainly one to be met with approval and good New Year’s cheer, it is hoped that the politicians do not now rest on their laurels but continue to address the imbalances in our system.

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