Same Sex Marriage – understanding the legalities
With the first same sex wedding due to take place in March, Alison Green, Head of Family Law at London-based solicitors Mackrell Turner Garrett outlines the legalities of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and the impact on same sex couples already in a civil partnership.
The first same sex weddings will be able to take place from Saturday 29 March 2014. This follows the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which received Royal Assent on 17 July 2013.
Under the terms of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, religious organisations will have to “opt in” to offering same sex weddings, with the Church of England and Church in Wales being prevented by law from doing so.
Same sex couples who have married abroad under foreign law and who are currently treated as civil partners will instead be recognised in England and Wales as being married from Thursday 13 March 2014.
Marriages of same sex couples in some British consulates and armed forces bases overseas will be possible, and arrangements for marriages of same sex couples in military chapels will be in place from 3 June 2014.
Same sex couples who want to be among the first to marry will need to give formal notice of their intention to marry on Thursday 13 March 2014.
What the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act does:
The Act, which extends to England and Wales:
- enables same sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies;
- ensures those religious organisations that wish to do so can opt in to conduct marriage ceremonies for same sex couples;
- protects religious organisations and their representatives from successful legal challenge, if they do not wish to marry same sex couples;
- enables civil partners to convert their partnership into a marriage, if they wish;
- enables individuals to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage.
On 23 January 2014, the Government laid a series of statutory instruments to be considered by Parliament. These bring into force most of the provisions of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 They:
- make various changes to primary and secondary legislation that are needed as a result of the Act coming into force;
- set out the procedures for registration of places of worship and authorised persons for marriages of same sex couples;
- set out procedures for registration of shared religious premises for marriages of same sex couples;
- determine jurisdiction in proceedings for divorce, annulment or judicial separation of a marriage of a same sex couple;
- extend graduated retirement benefit to married same sex couples;
- make various related changes to certain public service pension schemes;
- set out procedures for registration of military chapels for marriages of same sex couples;
- set out procedures for marriages (including of same sex couples) in armed forces bases overseas;
- set out procedures for marriages (including marriages of same sex couples) in British consulates.
Conversion of Civil Partnerships into Marriage
A Civil Partnership is a legal relationship exclusively for same-sex couples, distinct from marriage. It offers the same legal treatment as marriage across a range of matters, such as inheritance, pension provision, life assurance, child maintenance, next of kin and immigration rights. Opposite-sex couples can opt for a religious or civil marriage ceremony, whereas a same-sex partnership is an exclusively civil procedure until the new legislation comes into force.
Couples wishing to convert an existing Civil Partnership to a marriage will not be able to do so from the 29 March 2014. The Government has not yet set a date when this will be able to happen but have indicated this should be possible by the end of 2014.
While the Government claims to remain committed to allowing couples to convert their civil partnerships into a marriage without suffering legal detriment, the current situation that many couples are facing is the likelihood of needing to dissolve their current partnership in order to enable them to marry. This is likely to be a costly and time-consuming process.
Scotland and Northern Ireland
There are currently no plans for similar legislation in Northern Ireland. A bill which allows same-sex weddings to take place in Scotland has been passed by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. MSPs voted in favour of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. The first same sex weddings could take place this autumn.