Civil partners left in limbo whilst first same sex marriages set to take place this month

The first same sex marriages are due to take place at the end of this month, as parts of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 come into force.

Over the past few weeks, our team has received several enquiries from couples looking for advice about how to convert their civil partnership into a marriage, knowing that the first same sex marriages are due to take place at the end of the month.

The answer, at present, is we simply don’t know.

First same sex marriages to take place this month

On 10 December 2013, the government announced that certain parts of the Act were going to be implemented sooner than anticipated, meaning that same sex marriages will be able to take place from 29 March 2014 (I’ve heard of at least one couple who are intending to marry as soon as possible, at 12.01am).

This is clearly great news for those who have been waiting for the Act to come into force before cementing their relationship in law. Those who have entered into a same sex marriage abroad will also be recognised as married under English law on the same date (as opposed to being considered civil partners, as they would be under current law).

But what about those who chose to enter into civil partnerships?

However, the government has yet to figure out how a civil partnership can be converted into a marriage, meaning the concept of equal marriage is, for the time being at least, anything but equal.

The Guardian reported earlier this month about one couple, civil partners Michael and Paul Atwal-Brice, who are threatening legal action after discovering they will not be able to marry straight away.

The Act does give the government the power to make regulations to enable civil partnerships to be converted (section 9), but the specifics of how this will happen are still not clear, some 8 months after the Bill received Royal Assent.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has said it needs to make changes to legislation, IT systems and create new forms in order to enable conversions to take place, and that there will be a delay before all of this is put into place.

This means that that those in civil partnerships face [what can only be unintentional] discrimination on the part of the government, and it is disappointing that despite having been aware of this for several months, the government seems to be slow in taking steps to rectify the situation, or at least communicate anything further about when it expects the necessary regulations to be introduced.

So what options are there?

Very few, it seems.

At present, the only way to end a civil partnership is through dissolution (which is like getting a divorce).  To be able to grant this, the court has to be satisfied that the civil partnership has irretrievably broken down for one of four reasons – unreasonable behaviour, two years’ separation and consent, five years’ separation and desertion (the fifth reason, adultery, is only available to straight couples divorcing, but don’t get me started on that!).

So not only would you have to satisfy the court that the civil partnership was being dissolved for the right reasons (wanting to get married to your civil partner wouldn’t be an acceptable reason under the law), but there would of course be cost and time implications. The court fees alone are £455, and the quickest dissolutions can take at least 4 months, in which time the government might have got its act together and CPs would be capable of conversion anyway.

Waiting game

For now, it appears as though it is simply a matter of waiting for the government to make its next move.

Stonewall is continuing to lobby the government to push to enable conversions as soon as possible.  Michael and Paul Atwal-Brice’s legal representatives have written to culture secretary, Maria Miller, threatening judicial review, and my colleagues and I are planning to do the same.

Whilst it may not mean that the necessary regulations will be made to enable conversions to take place by the end of the month, it is important that the government is made aware of the unintentional, but intrinsically unfair, impact that bringing forward same sex marriage has upon those in civil partnerships wishing to convert to marriage.

As to what happens next, watch this space. I know that I for one will be watching eagerly to see how soon the government confirms when the first conversions can happen and to provide us with more information about the process to follow and the fee to be paid (yes, there is likely to be a fee). I’m sure though, that for thousands, it will be worth the wait.


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