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On Monday the Conservatives published their "Contract for Equalities", announcing that they will, if elected, consider the case for civil partnerships between same-sex couples to be "called and classified as marriage".
About 18 months ago my firm in partnership with Queen Mary, University of London and two other City law firms launched a Legal Advice Centre offering free legal advice on issues affecting the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. The advice centre is called Pink Law. The clear message we have received from the LGBT community is that the re-classification of "civil partnership" as "marriage" is a deeply important one and by no means a matter of mere semantics.
In fact, the central issue is one of equality.
"Marriage" conveys a sense of celebration sadly lacking from the legal construct of "civil partnership". This may in part be because those who lobbied hard for the enactment of the Civil Partnerships Act took the view that its passage through Parliament and into law would be much smoother if they steered clear of the traditional vocabulary of marriage, and its religious connections. As such this "separate but equal" approach continues to stigmatise same-sex couples. Gay peoples' committed relationships are often still viewed to be something less than their straight counterparts. Whether overt or covert, the suggestion remains that gay people are seen as something "other"; a community that has no place in normal society.
And yet, whether gay or straight, the legal recognition of a relationship affords identical legal rights, responsibilities and obligations. What possible justification can there be then for distinguishing between the social ceremonies by which same-sex and heterosexual couples respectively formalize their relationships?
It remains to be seen whether the Conservatives will be called upon to carry out their promise to "consider" a re-classification. Sadly, it is likely that if they do there will be strong feelings on the unjustifiable side of the argument.
Sandra Davis is a Partner and Head of Family at Mishcon de Reya. She is a member of the firm's management board, a Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the author of International Child Abduction (Sweet & Maxwell, 1993) and a member of the Lord Chancellor's Child Abduction Panel. In 2009 she was shortlisted in the Citywealth Magic Circle Awards as a Leading Lawyer.
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