Catherine Utley

    Yes, civil partnership law is deeply unfair - to relatives like me and my sister

    Yes, civil partnership law is deeply unfair - to relatives like me and my sister
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    Try as I might, I find it difficult to feel too sorry for Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, the cohabiting heterosexual couple who have failed to persuade a High Court judge that the government is wrong to deny them the right to form a civil partnership.

    Mr Keidan and Ms Steinfeld do not like the ‘patriarchal connotations’ and other cultural baggage which they say are associated with marriage and they do not see why, when same-sex couples can opt for a civil partnership as an alternative to marriage, they cannot. But, marriage provides all the same rights as a civil partnership and the judge has ruled that the government’s position is justified.

    There is, though, a serious discrimination which is not the one of which Mr Keidan and Ms Steinfeld complain. It affects tens of thousands of cohabitees who, like them, are not eligible for civil partnerships, but who, unlike them, cannot get married either.

    The government cannot explain why siblings and other blood relations, who live together in long-term, financially inter-dependent partnerships (frequently also acting as carers to each other, for example, when one is old or ill) are specifically excluded from eligibility for civil partnerships. There is nothing in law which says that civil partnerships have to involve a sexual relationship – and nor should there be! They provide rights that are crucial to all long-term cohabiting companions.

    Why are blood relations barred from them? Why, worse still, are long-term co-habiting blood relations denied every single one of the rights which civil partners, along with married couples (now of both of same and opposite sex), enjoy?

    These rights include the right to inherit a tenancy, joint pension rights, the right of one partner to compensation if the other dies as the result of the fault of a public body; and – most crucially for joint home owners – the right to pass on an estate to the other on death, free of inheritance tax.

    My sister and I, both unmarried, and now in our late 50s, have lived together for most of our lives, and in jointly owned property since the 1980s. We have also brought up my daughter together since her birth and, having just graduated, she is back living at home. But the value of our house, which we bought for £175,000 with a mortgage we have been paying off all our working lives, has risen sharply. So much so that, when one of us dies, the bereaved survivor would now have to sell up immediately in order to pay the inheritance tax on the deceased sister’s share. The sum the government would extract from us – because it does not approve of relationships based on blood ties – would now be roughly the same as our original joint mortgage all over again.

    Since our case received some publicity last September, I have been told of many distressing examples of this injustice. A friend told me of a situation in which an unmarried woman lived with and looked after her disabled brother in the house the siblings had inherited from their parents. She also worked and the two lived independently of state help. The brother outlived his sister and the inheritance tax he had to pay on her share of the house meant that, on his sister’s death, the home they had shared all their lives had to be sold immediately to pay the bill. He ended his own days in a state nursing home, entirely dependent on state benefits.

    Joyce and Sybil Burden, the splendid, feisty sisters who looked after a succession of their elderly relations in their Wiltshire family home, fought for thirty years for the same exemption from inheritance tax that married couples enjoyed so that when one sister died, the other would not have to lose her home. When civil partnerships were introduced, they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. It acknowledged the discrimination but ultimately ruled against them in 2008.

    In the twelve years since civil partnerships were first proposed, there have been numerous attempts in parliament to put right the discrimination against blood relations. At every point the seriousness of the injustice has been acknowledged. At every point it has been ignored.

    The latest MP to pledge his support is the former attorney-general Dominic Grieve QC who, in reply to an email I sent him the other day, says: ‘The basis for creating civil partnerships is the recognition by government of the value of close mutually supportive relationships outside of traditional marriage. As such the exclusion of cohabiting blood relations from the right to form one is discriminatory and a serious mistake that needs to be corrected.’ He adds that he could apply for a ten-minute rule bill.

    Perhaps, now that the equalities minister, Nicky Morgan, can breathe again after today’s judgement concerning Mr Keidan and Ms Steinfeld, she might decide to take some notice of this glaring inequality.