Today marks the fourth anniversary of civil partnerships in England and Wales.

Although Scotland celebrated its first civil partnership on December 20th 2005 due to a misunderstanding over the date, today marks the fourth anniversary for gay couples in England and Wales.

The very first to take place was on December 4th 2005, for a gay couple where one partner was terminally ill.

Four years ago today, three couples simultaneously tied the knot at 8am in Brighton – the exact time the legislation came into effect. The first three couples were Rev Debbie Gaston and Elaine Gaston, Gino Meriano and Mike Ullett and Roger Lewis and his partner Keith Willmott-Goodall.

The first celebrity couple to have a civil partnership were Elton John and David Furnish. The couple hosted a banquet reception for 700 guests.

Harriet Harman, minister for women and equality, said: “Today marks the fourth anniversary of civil partnerships in England and Wales and I would like to congratulate the 35,000 lesbian and gay couples who have so far registered their relationship.

“I’m proud that we were one of the first countries to introduce civil partnerships and that our new Equality Bill will provide important new protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people, creating a fairer and more inclusive society.”

Gino Meriano, founder of Pink Weddings and gay rights campaigner for same sex families told PinkNews.co.uk:

“Today is such a special day not only for me but for thousands that have been able to form a Civil Partnership and enjoy the long awaited legal’s rights we rightfully deserve.

“Now in our 7th year Pink Weddings have already helped over 4000 couples in their planning and I am so delighted we as a team have been able to do so, we all look forward to what 2010 brings”

In August, official figures showed that the numbers of civil partnerships entered into by gay and lesbian couples has continued to fall since a peak when they were legalised in 2005.

Figures released by the National Office of Statistics showed an 18 per cent drop in the number of ceremonies held in England since last year.

Although some critics tried to suggest this showed gay and lesbian couples were not keen for official recognition of their relationships, Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, said a “natural stabilising” in the rate of civil partnerships was unsurprising.

The Civil Partnerships Act 2004 gave gay couples all the rights and benefits available to straight married couples.

There are two differences. One is that a civil partnership is formed when the second of the two parties signs the partnership papers, while a marriage happens when the partners exchange spoken words and sign the register.

The other is that civil partnerships cannot be carried out by a religious minister or held in a church. Straight couples cannot have a civil partnership.

Last month, PinkNews.co.uk revealed that Stonewall is to lobby for civil partnerships to be carried out by religious groups, if they choose. This would be in the form of an amendment to the Equality Bill.

A straight couple have also launched a challenge for marriage equality. Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle, both 25 and of Holloway, London, are hoping to launch a legal challenge at the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed a civil partnership and also to obtain marriage rights for a gay couple.