Marriage and Civil Partnerships in Modern British Society

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The significance of marriage varies across the world. It is difficult to define marriage in a way that could apply to all marriages, because marriage means whatever the couples marrying take it to mean. It is a matter of perception. The difficulty of defining marriage reflects the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of our society today. The law in Britain has sought to recognize marriage as a contract or a status symbol. Although civil partnership act provides same-sex couples with similar legal rights that are given to spouses, the symbolic significance of not allowing same-sex marriage is far greater than the legal consequence. Cynics will argue that by not allowing same-sex couples the label of marriage, a homophobic message is sent. While, cohabitants are deemed with a lower status compared to spouses or civil partners, as the law has given them insufficient remedies on separation. Several people are sympathetic with the vulnerable position of cohabitants and want to see fairer outcomes. However, to a great extent, the disadvantaged treatment of cohabitants can be justified when considering the potential disadvantages of imposing legal remedies. Traditionally, marriage has been seen as the “voluntary union…of one man and one women, to the exclusion of others.” This definition of marriage continues to be significant today, as same-sex couples are still excluded from the statutory right to marry. According to s.11 (C) Matrimonial Causes Act, parties to marriage must be male and female, otherwise the marriage will be rendered void. The Government recognized the need for change, but instead of extending marriage to include same-sex marriage, they introduced a separate category of civil partnership that can only be entered by same-sex couples (s.3 (1)). The 264 sections and 30 schedules of the civil partnership act provide same-sex couples with virtually the same rights as marriage, but there are a few differences. First of all, the way the two relationships are formed can be distinguished: marriage is formed through the exchange of vows, while civil partnership begins with the signing of a register; marriage can be formed through a religious ceremony, while civil partnership ceremony cannot include any religious service. Secondly, civil partnership act ignores issues concerning same-sex activity: the ground for non-consummation and venereal disease are not included in the civil partnership act; adultery does not establish a ground for divorce; and a husband is considered to be the father of a child where the mother receives assisted reproductive services, but a civil partner would not be considered to be the parent of the child. The crucial question is whether these differences are significant enough to deem civil partnership with a lower status than marriage. According to Sir Mark Potter, civil partnership act gave same-sex couples the “benefits of marriage in all but name”. From this point of view it could be argued that these are minor differences with no significance: nullity is seldom used and a civil partner can gain dissolution on behavioural grounds. The fact that civil partners cannot form their marriage through exchange of vows doesn’t make difference in practice, and those civil partners who want religious blessings may do so after the formation of civil partnership. However, these differences can be held to be symbolically important. Arguably, the law wants to avoid the sexual side of relationships between same-sex couples, by avoiding issues such as consummation and adultery. Furthermore, it can be argued that the Government adopted civil partnership instead of same-sex marriage, to create a separate category from which religion could be excluded. This is reflected by the fact that exchange of vows and religious elements are excluded from the civil partnership ceremony. This was done to...
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