Northern Ireland news

Judge rejects same-sex marriage challenges

Civil partners Shannon Sickles (left) and Grainne Close arriving at the High Court in Belfast ahead of the judgement on two landmark legal challenges against Northern Ireland's ban on gay marriage 

Two landmark court challenges against the ban on same sex marriage in Northern Ireland have been dismissed.

Mr Justice O'Hara rejected both cases, insisting the ban did not violate the rights of LGBT couples in the region.

Delivering judgment at the High Court in Belfast, he said it was for the Stormont Assembly not a judge to decide social policy in the north.

The judge heard the cases together due to the similarities of the legal arguments.

The first case - known as Petition X due an anonymity order - involved two men who married in London in 2014 and were attempting to get their union recognised in Northern Ireland.

Their marriage was changed to a civil partnership in law when they moved to Northern Ireland.

In the second case, two couples in civil partnerships - Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane - argued the prohibition breaches their human rights.

Both couples were, respectively, the first and second in the UK to enter into a civil partnership after Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to make that option available in December 2005.

They took a case against Stormont's Department of Finance and Personnel, which regulates the region's marriage laws, on the grounds that the ban contravenes entitlements to marriage and a family life under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Grainne Close, her partner Shannon Sickles, and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane took legal action in a bid to have the ban lifted.

In 2005 they became the first couples in the United Kingdom to enter civil partnerships, cementing their relationships in ceremonies at Belfast City Hall.

But unlike the rest of the UK and the Republic, Northern Ireland has still not legalised same-sex marriage.

Stormont MLAs have voted five times on the issue - with a narrow majority in favour of the move on the last occasion in November 2015.

However, the DUP deployed a petition of concern mechanism to block the motion and prevent any change in the law.

Lawyers representing the two couples claimed they are suffering state discrimination after being marginalised all their lives.

File photo dated 19/12/05 of Shannon Sickles (right) and Grainne Close outside Belfast City Hall after their civil partnership ceremony 

They argued that the repeated refusal to legislation breaches their entitlement to family life and marriage under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In proceedings issued against the Department of Finance and Personnel, Northern Ireland was described as "a blot on the map" seen by the rest of the world as backward-looking and divided.

Being relegated to the second-class status of civil partnerships is demeaning and offensive to the couples' unions, it was contended.

According to their case the ban is having a "corrosive" impact on society.

Counsel for the Stormont department under challenge insisted the two couples have suffered no grave breach of their human rights.

He also denied there has been any "legislative inertia" on the issue.

Delivering judgment in front of a packed courtroom, Mr Justice O'Hara acknowledged the "compelling evidence" of how the gay and lesbian community has long suffered less favourable treatment.

He cited the insults, psychiatric damage and exclusion endured by its members.

But the judge stressed that the challenge was going against all recent European case law.

"If there's a move it's undoubtedly towards recognition of same-sex marriage," he said.

"Unfortunately, from the applicants' perspective, there's no sign of the Strasbourg court moving in that direction."

The legal challenge does not fall into the limited category of circumstances warranting judicial intervention, he held.

Mr Justice O'Hara added: "Put simply, the Strasbourg court has not recognised any right to same-sex marriage."

With any bid to achieve such status now resting with Stormont, he concluded by saying: "I hope when the Assembly next sits to consider this issue those with the responsibility of voting will read the evidence in this case."

Lawyers for X and his husband claimed their rights to privacy and family life, religious freedom and entitlement to marry under the European Convention on Human Rights have all been violated.

They insisted the case differed from the separate legal bid to have the same-sex marriage laws extended to Northern Ireland.

Downgrading a marriage validly recognised in England, Wales and Scotland to civil partnership status in Northern Ireland amounts to an unlawful interference, it was argued.

X and his husband were able to wed in England following the introduction of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013.

But counsel for UK's Government Equality Office (GEO) countered that there was never intended to be a "one size fits all" approach to the issue across the regions.

He insisted that a gay couple's ability to get married in England and Wales was a matter of policy rather than a legal obligation.

Backing those submissions, Mr Justice O'Hara said: "The judgment I have to reach is not based on social policy, but on the law."

Dismissing the case, he concluded: "X's rights have not been violated by virtue of the fact that same-sex marriage he entered into in London in 2014 is recognised in Northern Ireland only as a civil partnership."

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