Ellie Filler, left, and Emily Jehne tied the knot in December last year. Photo: Graham Tidy
Emily Jehne and Ellie Filler have a certificate at their home that says “wife and wife”.
“It’s not valid for anything at the moment,” Ms Jehne said.
But it’s a lovely reminder of the five days in December last year that the Canberra couple were married before same-sex marriage laws in the ACT were overturned by the High Court.
The couple has not given up hope of reclaiming their married status, and thought they had found the answer when same-sex marriage became legal in Britain earlier this year.
Ms Filler is British, which means she and Ms Jehne can marry in British consulates and high commissions in Australia.
But instead of celebrating with a ceremony at the British High Commission in Canberra at the weekend, they have been thrust into a legal and bureaucratic nightmare because of a prior civil partnership the pair entered in 2009.
The British government recognises civil unions entered into in Australian states and territories.
Couples cannot legally be in both a British marriage and a British civil partnership or an Australian equivalent.
For Ms Jehne and Ms Filler to marry under British laws, they have been told they must first dissolve their ACT civil partnership – and with it any legal benefits they have in Australia from having that registered relationship.
“We’re in limbo,” Ms Jehne said.
“We’re very keen to be married but we can’t do it without revoking some of our legal protection in Australia.”
The Australian government does not recognise same-sex marriages performed overseas.
A parliamentary inquiry is examining the problem, but will not report back until September.
NSW, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT and Tasmania all have schemes for same-sex civil partnerships.
Two states - Queensland and Tasmania - also allow overseas same-sex marriages to be recognised as civil unions in those states and a similar bill will be put to the NSW parliament.
But the lack of federal reform to legislate for same-sex marriage in Australia, or a national law recognising same-sex marriages entered into in other countries, has left couples in a position where they must choose between the symbolic recognition of a British marriage certificate and legal certainty at home.
Solicitor Heidi Yates, co-convenor of the National Association of Community Legal Centres LGBTIQ network, said that while de facto laws granted protections to same-sex couples, civil partnerships had additional legal benefits because they offered conclusive proof of a relationship the moment a couple “signs on the dotted line”.
She said that meant guaranteed recognition of the relationship in situations such as a medical emergency or pregnancy.
Rodney Croome, national director of Australian Marriage Equality, said that until Australia legislated for marriage equality, Australian same-sex couples would continue to find themselves navigating the “absurdity” of conflicting and overlapping laws.
He said the system was so complex, Australian couples were regularly told to “Google your rights” when moving between states and territories, and even local council areas.
For Queensland couple Kath Gelber and Lou Stanley it was too great a risk to give up their Queensland civil partnership to marry in a British consulate.
But together 21 years and raising an eight-year-old son who has begun asking why they cannot marry, they want a wedding.
“There is only one solution - we need to have same-sex marriage in Australia,” Ms Gelber said.
“Just get rid of all these two-tiered relationship rules to have one set of marriage laws for anyone who wants to commit to each other.”