The Civil Partnership Act 2004 was passed by the Westminster Parliament in November 2004, and came into effect on December 5th 2005. Under the Act, same-sex couples can register a civil partnership, which has almost the same legal effects, rights and obligations as marriage does for mixed-sex couples. For that reason, civil partnership is sometimes called ‘gay marriage’. However, legally, it is not marriage, but is a separate, segregated system, itself a form of discrimination, and we are currently campaigning for equal marriage.
In Scotland, civil partnership is available to same-sex couples, so long as both are over 16, and neither is already in a civil partnership or married. Like marriage, civil partnership is not available to close relatives (e.g. two sisters, father and son, aunt and niece). Unlike England and Wales, it is not necessary in Scotland to have parental permission to register a civil partnership while aged 16 or 17. It is not necessary to be resident in Scotland to register a civil partnership here, although people from outwith the European Economic Area (the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) and Switzerland need to obtain permission from the UK immigration authorities to visit to register a civil partnership.
To register a civil partnership, each partner submits a civil partnership notice to a district registrar in the location where you wish to register. This can be done by post. A date for registration is arranged with the registrar – this must be at least 15 days after the date the notices are submitted. Registration involves a non-religious ceremony, which both the couple, and two witnesses at least 16 years of age, must attend. Couples can arrange with the registrar to modify the ceremony to change the wording, include (non-religous) readings, music, etc. The legal effects of civil partnership start as soon as the civil partnership schedule is signed at the ceremony.
Registration can take place at a registration office, or at any other place agreed with the registrar – the General Register Office for Scotland publishes a list of places approved for registering a civil marriage, and these places should also be available for registering a civil partnership. It is a breach of the Equality Act 2010 for a place that hosts civil marriage ceremonies to refuse to host civil partnership receptions. If the place you want to use is not on the approved list, speak to the district registrar for the relevant district, because registrars have the power to agree to conduct registration in most locations. The main exception is religious premises: like civil marriage, a civil partnership cannot be registered on religious premises. However, there is nothing in the law to prevent a supportive minister, priest etc. conducting a blessing of a couple’s relationship on religious premises, immediately before or after civil registration is done at a nearby non-religious location.
The rules and arrangements for registering a civil partnership are explained here. Unlike marriage, a civil partnership cannot be conducted by a religious celebrant (minister, rabbi etc); any religious ceremony has no legal effect, and a civil registration ceremony must be held by the registrar as well.
If a couple have registered a legally effective civil partnership (domestic partnership, civil union, etc) in another country, or have registered a same-sex marriage in another country, they will be treated in this country as if they are civil partners. They will not need (and will not be allowed) to register their civil partnership again in this country.
The effects of registration
Once a couple have registered a civil partnership, the legal effects are almost identical to marriage. These include, amongst others:
- the obligation to support one another financially
- the right to inherit a substantial part of your partner’s property, on their death, whether or not there is a will, and without having to pay inheritance tax (however, making a will is always advisable)
- a survivor’s pension is likely to be available from your partner’s pension scheme after their death – check the details with the pension provider (depending on the pension scheme, this may be a smaller pension than a married partner would get, because civil partnership law is much newer than marriage law)
- laws which provide protection from domestic abuse
- if a UK citizen registers a civil partnership with a citizen of a foreign country, the foreign partner will usually be permitted to reside in the UK with their partner
- being able to inherit the tenancy of your partner’s flat if they die, and you had been living there
- hospitals etc should recognise you as your partner’s next of kin
- the right to claim damages from a person causing the death of your partner by a wrongful act
- for assessing social security and other benefits, both partners’ incomes are taken into account
Cohabiting couples, that is people who live together as a couple without registering a civil partnership, have some but not all of these legal rights and obligations – see our page on cohabitation for more details.
Ending a civil partnership
A civil partnership can be ended in the same way as a marriage, that is, by applying to the sheriff court for a dissolution. This works in the same way as divorce. A dissolution will only be granted if the civil partnership has irretrievably broken down (or if an interim gender recognition certificate has been issued to either partner – see our page on gender recognition). Irretrievable breakdown can be established by proving one of these circumstances
- ‘unreasonable behaviour’ – the partner applying for the dissolution shows that the other partner has behaved in such a way that it would be unreasonable to expect the applicant partner to continue living with them. This behaviour could include domestic abuse for example, and depending on the circumstances could also include sexual infidelity.
- the partners have lived apart for one year and they both agree to the dissolution.
- the partners have lived apart for two years and only one of them wants the dissolution.
These are the same rules as for divorce. For divorce, irretrievable breakdown of marriage can also be proved by proving adultery, defined as heterosexual sexual intercourse with someone other than the spouse. For civil partnership dissolution, sexual infidelity would be included under the unreasonable behaviour ground for dissolution, as is the case for any sexual infidelity in marriage that is not heterosexual intercourse.
When the court grants a dissolution of civil partnership, it can rule on a division of property between the partners. The rules are the same as for property division on divorce: the basic rule is that any property obtained by either partner during the partnership (except gifts or bequests to made to one or the other partner) is split equally between the partners. The court can also rule on residence and contact arrangements for any children who the couple have been parenting.
The rules on parenting have in the past been significantly different for married couples and for civil partners. The differences have been removed by the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. See our page on parenting for more details.
For enquiries about registering a civil partnership, it is probably best to approach the district registrar for the location in which you want to hold the ceremony. The website of the General Register Office for Scotland gives details of the procedures.