Judge to rule whether heterosexual couple can be allowed to form civil partnership

‘We only want the same rights as gay people’

When Charles Keidan tried to pop the question to Rebecca Steinfeld, she cut him off: “I was like, ‘No! I was going to do this!’.” she laughed, remembering how she dropped to one knee during a snowy walk in the French Pyrenees. The pair, who Keidan concedes “proposed to each other”, strive for equality in their relationship. So much so that marriage, with its patriarchal baggage, is out of the question, despite that engagement. 

Instead, the duo want a civil partnership, much like the thousands of same-sex couples who have stuck with the union despite the legalisation of gay marriage two years ago. But they have a problem: “I’m female and Charlie is male,” Steinfeld said. And heterosexual couples are banned, by law, from forming civil partnerships, which Steinfeld calls “discrimination”.  

This week, the couple will ask a High Court judge to rule on whether their human rights are being infringed, a decision that could affect three million heterosexual couples who live together outside wedlock. “It’s a basic equality issue. Any social institution should be open to everybody regardless of sex or sexual orientation,” Steinfeld explained. The pair, who have an eight-month-old baby, launched the legal challenge 13 months ago after an official at the Kensington and Chelsea Register Office turned them away because the 2004 Civil Partnership Act stipulates that only same-sex couples are eligible. 

Tim Loughton, the Conservative former children’s minister, is backing the couple from within the House of Commons with a private member’s Bill aimed at extending the union. “The same-sex marriage Bill gave rise to a new inequality that needs to be righted,” he said, predicting greater “family stability” would ensue. “A great many people who choose to cohabit, who have children, have no recognition or protection in the eyes of the law.” 

The Bill is due to have its second reading on 29 January, but is sixth in the running order, so Mr Loughton fears it “will not see the light of day”.  

More than 30,000 people have signed a petition backing Keidan, 39, and Steinfeld, 34. Their campaign has also raised nearly £20,000 in crowdfunding towards their legal costs, which the judge capped at £22,500 if they lose because the case is in the public interest. “We have a big mandate. Without that support we couldn’t and wouldn’t have continued,” said Keidan. 

Jimmy Pierce, 31, and Laura Cochran, 25, from Todmorden, West Yorkshire, are among those keen to eschew marriage. “We wanted a civil partnership for emotional reasons, but now I’m pregnant our legal and financial security is being jeopardised because we’re choosing not to get married,” said Cochran. 

Cohabiting couples lack the legal protections afforded to married couples. If one partner dies, inheritance tax must be paid on the estate; and if the couple separate there are no automatic entitlements to property unless a shared home is registered jointly. “Women can be in a more vulnerable position, particularly if property is in their partner’s name,” said Steinfeld. 

Lawyers estimate that more than half a million heterosexual couples could opt for a civil partnership, given the chance, if they follow the pattern of their gay peers. Since the Marriage Act was changed in April 2014, 17 per cent of same-sex couples have stuck with civil partnerships. In the Netherlands, where all options are available, 89 per cent of opposite-sex couples choose to get married, with 11 per cent preferring civil partnerships. 

“We’re talking about a significant minority. But not a number that would threaten or destabilise marriage,” said Steinfeld, who lives in Hammersmith, west London with her family. She describes attempting to hold their own ceremony in 2014. “The person we saw thought we’d made a mistake. I said, ‘Would you consider an act of civil disobedience?’ And she said, ‘No, it’s not worth my job,’ which I totally understand. But her boss was quite aggressive and asked us to leave the premises; it was a bit threatening.”

Steinfeld, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, doesn’t like the symbolism of marriage, which still requires only a couple’s fathers to sign the marriage certificate. “With a civil partnership, we can come up with our own rituals and avoid conversations about rings, white dresses, and bridesmaids,” she said. 

A spokesman for the government Equalities Office said it would be “inappropriate to comment” given this week’s judicial review.

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