Is it me or do people seem to be paying much more attention to the party conferences than in previous years? It was the Liberal Democrats last week and the TV and (quality) newspaper coverage was robust, as a politician might say. I'm not sure my memory is entirely correct when I suggest that just a couple of years ago some of the conferences seemed to be conducted in a shed in Marlow with a "news in brief" item on p24 of the broadsheets the only glimmer of media interest. It does seem that things have ramped up a gear though now we have a coalition Government. Perhaps last year all the parties were too shell-shocked after the election campaign and ultimate outcome to make too much of a fuss. Or perhaps I was on holiday. Anyway, lots of interesting things coming out of Birmingham last week, Liverpool this week and I am sure we will get plenty from Manchester next week. From a family law point of view, it was the comments on same sex marriage that grabbed the headlines for the Lib Dems. Equalities Minster Lynne Featherstone told the conference that the Government was committed to changing the law by 2015 to allow gay marriage and that a consultation on the issue would begin in March next year. Currently same sex couples can enter into a civil partnership but cannot officially marry. Conversely, male and female couples can marry but cannot enter into a civil partnership. The introduction of civil partnerships under the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was long overdue. It brought same sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as married couples in terms of property rights, tax exemptions and pension benefits, to name a few. However, I feel that to keep pushing this issue further on a point of language (the word "married") is semantics really, as I have said before. I know gay couples who have been "civil partnershipped" and consider themselves married and refer to themselves as such. In the same way, I find it odd that some heterosexual couples are fighting for the right to be joined in civil partnership. Currently, a couple have to be of the same sex to have a civil partnership. Is this really a big issue? If it is the religious side of marriage a couple don't like, they can simply have a non-religious ceremony at a nice hotel as thousands of couples do in the UK each year already. The fact that a consultation is to be launched on gay marriage has not pleased everyone. Gay rights campaigners claim that in itself is discriminatory. There is nothing to consult on and the rules should be changed without delay. Whatever the final outcome, it is not going to be a huge change in family law, just a shuffling of words, and it perhaps will simply leave more people asking the question: Is this the most pressing issue that the Government should be spending time on? Andrew Woolley Family solicitor
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