When the UK legalised civil partnerships, there was competition to see who could be first.

In the South American nation of Uruguay, a new law granting cohabiting couples who have lived together for more than five years the same rights as straight married couples was signed into law in December.

Yet, according to a report from news agency AFP, the first actual ceremony only took place last Thursday.

The new law refers to “two people — of any sex, identity, orientation or sexual option — who maintain an emotional relationship sexual in nature, that is exclusive, stable and permanent, without being united in matrimony.”

The country of 3.6m people is the first nation in South America to grant such protections, although some cities and regions throughout the continent have made similar legal provisions.

AFP reports that a 67-year-old actor ‘married’ his 38-year-old partner at a ceremony in a courtroom in Montevideo conducted by a judge.

The main opposition party in Uruguay, Partido National, tried to remove gay and lesbian couples from the new bill during a March 2007 debate in the Chamber of Deputies but was unsuccessful.

Same-sex marriage will remain illegal in Uruguay, something LGBT rights groups say they will continue to fight.

Because of the marriage ban judges had been unsure how to rule in a number of cases involving same-sex couples, particularly in areas of adoption, pensions and inheritance.

Senator Margarita Percovich, the author of the legislation, said the new law would give couples entering civil unions the same rights as marriage.

Under the legislation couples would have be together for at least five years and sign a registry. The couples will receive heath benefits, inheritance, parenting and pension rights.

In neighbouring Brazil, the border state of Rio Grande do Sul passed civil union legislation in 2004, two years after the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, passed a similar law.

Uruguay is the country the first in South America to have a national civil union law.