It was recently announced by the Equalities Minister Maria Miller that same-sex marriages will be legal from 29 March 2014, following the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act receiving Royal Assent in July 2013.
This is historic for the United Kingdom and shows the huge progress we’ve made towards equal rights for all members of society. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the Nullity of Marriage Act 1971 was passed just over 40 years ago explicitly banning same-sex marriages in England and Wales.
The progress from England’s initial criminalisation of same-sex sexual offences to the current situation where marriage is open to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, has been a struggle at times. We have seen some significant victories along the way, including, in 2002, the right for same-sex couples to adopt and in 2004, the passing of the Civil Partnership Act. This journey has had its setbacks too. One notable obstacle was Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of s.28 of the Local Government Act in 1988 which prohibited the acceptance of homosexuality as a family relationship in all local authorities and schools.
There has also been a fair amount of vocal opposition to the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act receiving Royal Assent, with strong views on both sides and particular division because of religious beliefs being exposed during the passage of the bill.
In its current form, religious organisations have to “opt in” to offering weddings for same-sex couples. However, there is now the opportunity for anyone to petition the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to compel the UK government to force religious organisations to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.
So what does the impact of this legislation mean in practice for those couples who wish to be among the first to marry in spring 2014? Same-sex couples will now enjoy the same rights as their married counterparts. For example, same-sex spouses will be entitled to the same tax benefits as heterosexual married couples; they will inherit their partner’s assets upon death if they die intestate up to the statutory legacy; upon separation the spouse has the right to seek an order in relation to their other half’s pension; and the Court will have the same discretion available to apportion assets and debts upon separation as they do for heterosexual married couples who are divorcing.
In reality, the impact of this new legislation for same-sex couples who opt to marry does not make a huge difference to the rights upon separation that are already afforded to them under the Civil Partnership Act. However, civil partnerships are not marriage in the complete historical and communal sentiment of the word, and this change in the law brings an equality to our society’s respect for all individuals regardless of their sexuality.
There is no doubt that this move towards equal rights in marriage in the UK has been a notoriously difficult and arduous one, however, the legalisation of same-sex marriage is a huge step forward in the evolution of equality and it will certainly remove one of the biggest hurdles to full LGBT equality in law.
Charlotte Brinsley is a solicitor at Slater & Gordon.