Heterosexual couples can now legally opt for a civil partnership instead of marriage - this is what means

Civil partnerships are now legal for heterosexual couples.

A new law came into force this morning that allows mixed-sex couples to opt for civil partnerships instead of marriage for the first time.

Previously civil partnerships had only been available to same-sex couples in the UK, after laws changed in 2004. Civil partnerships were seen by many as an alternative to marriage - which was still illegal for homosexuals at the time.

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What is a civil partnership?

A civil partnership is an alternative to traditional marriage, which carries the same legal benefits as a marriage.

You can have a civil ceremony at a registry office, or another venue approved by the local council, and you must have at least two witnesses.

A certified registrar must carry out, or be present at the ceremony.

Unlike with marriages, people entering into civil partnerships cannot have a religious ceremony - no prayers, hymns, or readings from holy books - though they can have a religious blessing afterwards.

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There are lots of optional parts of the ceremony which people can choose to have or to avoid, like secular music and songs, as well as the exchanging of vows.

Since many same-sex couples entered into civil partnerships before gay marriages were legalised in 2014, the law allows them to convert their civil partnership into a marriage at a registry office, without the need for another ceremony.

Why are they important?

According to the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign group, before the introduction of the new law. mixed sex couples “had only the choice of marriage when many couples would prefer to formalise their relationship - and enjoy the security and benefits of legal partnership - through the formation of a civil partnership.”

Many couples, like campaigners Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, see the institution of marriage as outdated. Commenting on the change in the law, Charles said: “For us, a civil partnership is a blank slate upon which we can inscribe our own hopes and dreams.

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“There is no social script, no fixed expectations imposed by others, no huge expense and minimal fanfare.

“I’m also happy to be avoiding demands and expectations from others – be they family, friends and society – about wearing certain clothes, exchanging vows and rings, throwing an expensive party or signing a certificate or being part of an institution which still excludes mother’s names.

“I’m really happy and proud to have played a role in giving birth to a new type of legal relationship and social structure – one which I hope will increase people’s happiness, well-being, choice and security,” he added.

Rebecca said: “It matters that same-sex couples can marry – something we campaigned for within our community.

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“But it also matters that feminists like me, in mixed-sex relationships, can, through civil partnerships, formalise a relationship of equals, and avoid labels like “wife,” together with all the gendered expectations that come with them.

“Being civil partners reminds us of the need for mutual respect. And it gives me, especially, leverage whenever there’s a creeping inequality in our division of household labour and childcare responsibilities.”