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Northern Ireland’s ban on same-sex marriage was ‘unjustified discrimination’, top court finally rules

Emma Powys Maurice April 7, 2020
Same-sex marriage

Robyn Peoples (L) and Sharni Edwards, Northern Ireland's first same-sex couple to be legally married. (Charles McQuillan/Getty)

A top court in Northern Ireland has reconsidered a former judgement against two couples who argued that the ban on same-sex marriage breached their human rights.

The two same-sex couples launched a landmark legal challenge against the government in 2015 as they sought to have their civil partnerships recognised as marriages.

In 2017 their case was dismissed by a judge who insisted the ban did not violate the rights of LGBT+ couples, and decided it was a matter for the Stormont administration rather than the courts.

One of the couples appealed the determination, and after two years of deliberation the Court of the Appeals finally declared that the government’s denial of their right to marry was indeed discriminatory and unjustified.

Delivering his judgment today, lord chief justice Sir Declan Morgan said that the discrimination was “clear” at the time and that a “fair balance” had not been struck.

“It was clear by the time of the delivery of the first instance judgment in this case in August 2017 that the absence of same-sex marriage in this jurisdiction discriminated against same-sex couples, that a fair balance between tradition and personal rights had not been struck and that therefore the discrimination was not justified,” he said.

The judge acknowledged the impact of neighbouring countries legalising same-sex marriage while Northern Ireland continued to ban it.

He referred to Scotland and the Republic of Ireland’s marriage equality moves in 2015, noting that there are “strong ties of kinship and friendship” between Northern Ireland and those two countries.

“People who were married in those jurisdictions did not have their marriages recognised here and those who had formed civil partnerships here were prohibited from solemnising marriages in their own neighbourhood unlike their friends and relatives in those jurisdictions,” he said.

The first same-sex marriage in Scotland on December 31, 2014 in Glasgow (Mark Runnacles/Getty)

“In our view the events of 2015 and their consequences increasingly called into question the balance between the interests of those favouring tradition and the interests of those denied the opportunity to be seen as equal and no longer separate.”

However, while the court acknowledged that discrimination had taken place, it declined to comment on whether this constituted a breach of the claimants’ human rights.

It concluded that there was “no purpose to be served” in making such a declaration in light of recent legislative developments in Northern Ireland, namely the legalisation of same-sex marriage earlier this year.

More: marriage equality, Northern Ireland, same sex marriage, stormont

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