The last time Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan went to Chelsea Old Town Hall to formalise their relationship through a civil partnership they were turned away.
At that time, five years ago, the legal status was restricted to same sex couples. But following a groundbreaking legal fight which led to a change in UK law, they will head to Kensington and Chelsea register office on New Year’s Eve in a bid to become one of the first mixed sex couples to enter into a new type of civil partnership.
“It feels like the end of a huge long journey,” said Mr Keidan, a 43-year-old magazine editor. “I feel so happy that finally we are able to document our relationship and allow it to reflect the equality to which we both aspire.”
Mr Keidan and Ms Steinfeld, who have two young children, were determined to change the law after their experience in Chelsea in 2014. They helped launch a campaign and brought a judicial review legal challenge arguing that the 2004 Civil Partnership Act breached article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the grounds that it discriminated against mixed sex couples.
The couple lost in the lower courts before winning a landmark victory in the Supreme Court last year which ruled that the current legislation was incompatible with European human rights law.
Soon afterwards the former prime minister Theresa May’s government approved new legislation which came into force from December 2.
Because heterosexual couples in England and Wales wanting to enter into civil partnerships have to give 28 days notice Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan will be among the first wave of couples to make history on December 31.
They plan a simple registration ceremony with their two children and a few friends followed by a New Year’s Eve celebration.
“It feels like we have come full circle,” adds Ms Steinfeld, 38, a senior policy officer, who as a feminist said she disliked the patriarchal connotations of marriage. “Cohabiting couples don’t have the same protections as marriage or civil partnership as there is no such thing as common law marriage.”
Civil partnerships were first introduced in 2004 to allow same sex couples to gain the same legal rights as married couples. However numbers of civil partnerships in England and Wales have dwindled from a peak of 14,943 in 2006 to 956 in 2018 since the introduction of gay marriage in 2014.
The government has predicted thousands of mixed sex couples will enter into a civil partnership in 2020. A Government Equalities Office impact assessment published in July suggested that around 27,000 opposite sex partnerships could be registered in 2020 but that the uptake could be as high as 84,000.
Civil partnerships give couples the same legal protections as marriage if the couple split up or one of them dies. It allows them to automatically inherit their partner’s estate or family home and to claim pension rights.
Cohabiting families are the fastest growing family type with the number in the UK more than doubling over 20 years, to about 3.4m. In 2017, 48 per cent of children were born to unmarried couples.
Other countries which have introduced mixed sex civil partnerships have seen their popularity rise. In the Netherlands, where they were introduced in 1998, such partnerships account for 23 per cent of all opposite sex unions (civil partnerships plus marriage).
Simon Blain, partner at law firm Forsters, said that he expected that mixed sex partnerships would prove popular among people who did not like the religious connotations of marriage. “Some younger people might go for this because perhaps they feel marriage is for older people and civil partnerships feel different and fresher,” he said.
Prior to the law change, some British couples were forced to go to the Isle of Man where mixed sex civil partnerships have been legal since 2016 — a product of the island’s own legal system which is different to the rest of the UK.
Martin Loat, 58, who chairs the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign, and his partner Claire Beale, a magazine editor, were among those couples who took the Isle of Man route. This month, as the wider UK law change came into force, the status of their relationship was finally recognised.
“I went to bed as a single man and woke up in a legally binding relationship,” Mr Loat said.
Having helped drive the campaign for change, he said he hoped the new civil partnerships will become a modern alternative for mixed sex couples who want to put their relationship on a more formal footing. “The financial protection is very similar to marriage and without the formalities and baggage of marriage and the expense,” he said.