A new law that would allow gay and lesbian couples in Hawaii to form a civil union has been approved by the state House of Representatives.

Same-sex partners will have to apply for a licence under legislation proposed by House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, a Democrat.

Members of the clergy and judges, including retired judges, will be eligible to perform civil unions.

The legislation will have to be approved by the state Senate and signed by the Governor before it becomes law.

The House approved it yesterday by 33 votes to 17.

An attempt to legalise civil unions failed last year.

In 1998 Hawaii voters amended the state constitution to give the legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples, which prevented the courts imposing gay marriage.

Gay and straight couples in Hawaii can already register a reciprocal beneficiary relationship with limited benefits.

At present gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut, while civil unions that carry all the state rights of marriage are legal in New Jersey, Vermont and New Hampshire.