Shelley Cumbers, Family and Divorce Law Solicitor at Thompson Smith and Puxon (TSP), discusses the significant amount of changes in the family law world recently, including the long awaited introduction of marriage for same-sex couples.

The relevant law is found in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and most of its provisions came into force on 13 March 2014. Under this law, it has become legal for same-sex couples to enter into marriage by way of civil or religious ceremony. If the ceremony is a religious one, then the marriage can only proceed provided the religious organisation has opted in to conduct such ceremonies.

The first same-sex weddings in England and Wales were conducted on 29 March 2014. Before this date, the only way same-sex couples could legally formalise their relationship was to enter into a civil partnership which, once registered, gave them broadly speaking the same legal status as married couples in respect of inheritance, tax and financial provision on the ending or breakdown of their relationship. However, whilst civil partnerships are similar to marriages, they are not the same. This has, in turn, caused much debate and argument for reform.

The introduction of marriage for same-sex couples has therefore been welcomed by many, but is not without controversy. It has raised a number of issues including, in particular, the ability for those couples already registered as civil partners to convert their relationship into a marriage. In a nutshell, the provisions for same-sex marriage do not apply, as yet, to civil partners which means that registered civil partners wishing to marry must first obtain a formal dissolution of their civil partnership. That is unless they are prepared to wait until 10 December 2014 when, as the Government announced last week, all couples in registered civil partnerships will be able to convert their civil partnerships into a same-sex marriage.

The Government Equalities Office and Department for Culture, Media and Sport made this announcement as part of its report on the conclusions of a civil partnership review in England and Wales required under section 15 of the above-detailed Act. The report includes a summary of the responses to the consultation carried out as part of the review. As a result of which, the Government has confirmed that it will not be making any changes to civil partnership as there was no consensus amongst the consultation respondents as to the way forward for civil partnership. The three potential changes to civil partnership include:

  • the abolition of civil partnership;
  • the closing of civil partnership to new couples; and
  • the opening up of civil partnership to opposite sex couples.

The report states that in light of the recent changes to allow same-sex marriage, several important organisations thought it was too soon to consider making changes to civil partnership generally. Instead, this should wait until the impact of extending marriage to same-sex couples is known.

Therefore, it seems we will have to watch this space in terms of civil partnership review, but at least those civil partners wishing to convert to marriage can now send their “save the date” announcements to friends and family for their weddings to take place from 10 December 2014 onwards.

Shelley advises clients on all aspects of private family law and is able to offer a free half hour initial chat for prospective clients. She is a member of Resolution and a Collaborative Lawyer. She is committed to resolving disputes constructively and sensibly. Shelley is pictured with Marcus Price, who leads the Family team at TSP.