In February 2017, the UK Court of Appeal found that a woman who lost her long-term partner deserves the same pay-out benefits given to those partners who were married or in a civil partnership.

Current UK legislation provides for fixed-sum pay-outs to the surviving spouse if a person dies as a result of negligence. This, however, only applies to spouses and civil partners. The current legal position led to a UK citizen challenging it in court on the basis that it is breaching her human rights. The court found that the award should be made available to anyone who had been in a relationship for at least two years.

While this court decision is a victory for those who prefer to formalise their relationship outside of traditional marriage, the South African legal position still places unmarried partners at a disadvantage.

In additional to the traditional Marriage Act, the Civil Union Act allows two persons of any sex to enter into a marriage or a civil union. There is no difference between a marriage and a civil union, other than the name. There is, however, no protection for couples who are in a long-term relationship without having solemnised their relationship according to the law.

Before the Civil Union Act (which allows same-sex couples to get married) came into force, the courts have in various decisions granted rights to same-sex couples in a long term relationship which are similar to those of a married couple. Despite the Civil Union Act coming into force, these court decisions remain in force and have created the paradoxical position where same-sex couples in long term relationships (without being married) are protected by law and such protection is not extended to opposite-sex couples in a similar position.

The draft Domestic Partnerships Bill was published in January 2008, but not much has come from it. If enacted, it would provide protection for those circumstances where two people live together ‘as if they are married’ when in fact they are not.

Marriage has come a long way from the early Anglo-Saxons tribes who saw it as a strategic tool to establish diplomatic and trade ties. But the developments have not come far enough and it is necessary for the law to change to reflect the societal realities and the way most people choose to form relationships.