The Difference Between Marriage & Civil Partnerships

Knowing the difference between marriage and civil partnerships

The history

To know the difference between marriage and civil partnerships, it’s best to start back at the beginning. Throughout history the joining together of a couple has been celebrated and formalised by a legal union – marriage. The laws relating to marriage in this country have deep roots in our history, and even today we can trace some of the legal aspects back to Henry VIII. His first divorce led to a schism with Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. Henry set up his own Church – the Church of England – which had, and still does have, its own rules for marriage.  

In 1837 after a number of problems with Clergy record keeping and clandestine marriages causing shock waves amongst the aristocracy, The General Register Office was brought into being, and the formal registration of births, deaths and marriages began. Marriages could now be contracted in a purely civil form with no religious content allowable. In addition recognition was given to marriages contracted in other faiths, such as Methodist, as long as they took place within Registered Religious buildings.

The main Act which governs the law on marriage is The 1949 Marriage Act but there have been a few amendments since then. One of the most influential of these was The 1994 Marriage Act which allowed civil marriage to take place in premises licensed by the Registration Service. Licensed areas within the building must be named, and a permanent structure outdoors may be licensed, with the two Registration Officers officiating, the couple and, in some instances the two witnesses, remaining within the permanent structure during the ceremony. These ceremonies have to conform to the Marriage Act 1949 so they are not allowed to have any religious or spiritual connotation to them. The couple are able to have some limited ability to personalise the ceremony, but there is usually little, if any, opportunity to meet or speak with the Registration Officers who will be conducting the ceremony before the day.

What is the difference?

In 2005 Civil Partnerships came into being. This allowed same sex couples to gain the same rights as a heterosexual couple who marry. There are some differences between Marriage and Civil Partnership, especially in the way the legal contract is made.

Marriage is a verbal contract, the couple have to say two sets of legal words – known as the Declaratory and Contracting words, to each other, in the presence of a Superintendent Registrar and a Registrar (often known as Ceremony Officers) and two witnesses. Once the words are spoken the couple are married, the signing of the Register is a record of the verbal contract, not an integral part of it.

Civil Partnership is contracted when the couple, a Civil Partnership Registrar (just one), and two witnesses have signed the official document which is known as a Schedule, no words need to be spoken!

In 2014, marriage was introduced for same sex couples.  Civil Partnership was still restricted to same sex couples only.  In 2018 a landmark ruling from the Supreme Court decreed that heterosexual couples should be able to contract a Civil Partnership; we are awaiting the date for this to be in place, but it is likely to be sometime next year.  This will allow couples to choose to be together in a way that is not governed by some of the patriarchal traditions of the past, and as Celebrants, we are looking to develop ceremonies which will be reflective of the equality of their union.

Where next?

In the budget this year an announcement was made which took all of us by surprise – the promise of a review of marriage law following on from a Law Commission Report of 2015 which stated that the law around marriage was confusing and outdated. The view of the Law Commission was that a wholescale reform would be required, not just tinkering around the edges.

However, the press coverage did concentrate on the possible relaxation of the rules around having alcohol and food available at the ceremony and allowing more premises such as pubs to become available for weddings; they also highlighted that legal ceremonies may be able to take place outdoors.

No one really knows what the reforms will be, but as Independent Celebrants we are involved in letting the Government know our views. A reform which would enable Independent Celebrants (who allow rituals together with spiritual and religious elements within their ceremonies), and Humanist Celebrants to perform legal ceremonies, in addition to Registration Officers and Religious Ministers, would give the public true choice for their ceremony.

In the meantime, if you are looking for a ceremony which will be at the romantic heart of your day, then we are happy to help you celebrate. As Independent Celebrants we work with you to weave your story, your beliefs and your love into a ceremony as unique as you are. We have been to some amazing locations this year and worked with some incredible couples. We feel privileged to be able to call this work!

Read more – How to personalise your ceremony

Contributors – Nicola & Denise from Cornish Celebrants

Image credit – Debs Alexander Photography