The family is a unique concept. It is often the most valued aspect of our lives. It transcends cultural differences; no matter what an individual’s background, religion or sexual orientation may be – the chances are he/she has or wishes to have a family to cherish. Indeed, the right to a private and family life is a human right! It is a fundamental part of our society.
As society has, and continues to, change and develop over time, so too will our perception and definition of the family.
As there is such a wonderful array of people in our multicultural society, it follows that there is an equally wonderful array of family structures. Over the years, society – and therefore the law – has made significant advances in terms of recognition and acceptance of ‘non-traditional’ family structures.
With the Civil Partnership Act 2004, same sex couples became able to enter into civil partnerships – a union which grants them, more or less, the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. Further, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (the 2013 Act) extended the definition and made marriage itself available to same sex couples. Both these developments were celebrated by many family lawyers. Same sex couples now have the opportunity to choose between whether they join together in a civil partnership or by the ‘institution of marriage’.
However, in a quirk of the law, heterosexual couples are not afforded such an option. Enter Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan – two London based heterosexual long-term partners, who wished to take their relationship to the stage of legal recognition.
As academic critics of marriage as a patriarchal institution, the pair preferred to enter into a civil partnership, as they would be entitled to opt to do if they were of the same sex. To deny them of that right, they argued, was discrimination.
In R (Steinfeld and Keidan) v Secretary of State for Education  EWHC 128 (Admin), the High Court rejected their application for judicial review with regards to the availability of civil partnership to heterosexual couples. This was on the basis that the Government sought to wait until it feels better placed to evaluate the impact of the 2013 Act on civil partnerships before considering any legislative steps. This wait, said Mrs Justice Andrews in that judgment, did not disadvantage heterosexuals, who could achieve exactly the same rights and responsibilities by getting married.
Not satisfied with the outcome, Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan appealed to the Court of Appeal. Today, the Court of Appeal again dismissed this challenge. By a majority of two judges to one, the Court held that the “wait and see” policy of the Government before making any decisions was justified.
However, the judges were clear: There is scope for this to be considered discrimination and the period for assessment cannot continue indefinitely. A decision will need to be made soon.
Should the same routes to legal recognition of relationships be available to all couples, regardless of their sex or orientation? With this judgment, the debate continues…
For specialist family law advice, contact James Maguire & Co where you can speak with a family solicitor by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone:
Wilmslow 01625 544650
Knutsford 01565 648228
London 0207 9474219