Northern Ireland news

Judgment reserved in bid to overturn landmark ruling allowing humanist marriages

Republic of Ireland footballer Eunan O'Kane and model Laura Lacole at an earlier court hearing. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

JUDGMENT was reserved today in a bid to overturn a landmark ruling which extends legal recognition to humanist marriages in Northern Ireland.

Attorney General John Larkin and a Stormont department are both appealing the decision that Belfast model Laura Lacole and her international footballer partner Eunan O'Kane were treated unlawfully because of their belief system.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan pledged to deliver his verdict as soon as possible.

Ms Lacole has already wed Mr O'Kane, a Republic of Ireland and Leeds United midfielder, in a legally valid humanist ceremony.

But following closing submissions in the Court of Appeal she expressed her hope that they will not be the only couple able to obtain such a marriage in Northern Ireland.

She said: "There's clearly massive demand, a lot of people are waiting to see how this case will pan out.

"We want them to be able to have the same outcome as us."

Under current law a couple seeking such a humanist wedding must also have a separate civil registration for it to be officially acknowledged.

The same situation applies in England and Wales, but not in Scotland or the Republic.

In June last year Belfast woman Ms Lacole won her High Court challenge to the refusal to grant official status for her wedding ceremony.

A judge held the marriage was a manifestation of the model's beliefs, and that she was denied equal treatment to that given to religious couples - a breach of her human rights.

He ordered the granting of temporary authorisation for a humanist celebrant to oversee a legally binding wedding.

Despite the celebrity couple then going ahead with their wedding, Mr Larkin and the Department of Finance pressed ahead with a challenge to the verdict and its wider implications.

According to the Attorney General humanist couples will suffer no discrimination under current legislative arrangements.

He argued that the 2003 Marriage Order includes provisions for the solemnisation of civil marriage - ensuring no breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

A panel of three appeal judges were told the claims made on behalf of the humanists were "evidentially undercooked".

Counsel for the department contended that any interference with Ms Lacole's rights was minimal and justified.

But lawyers representing the model, who is also vice-chair of Atheist NI, insisted she is being discriminated against under the convention's protection for freedom of belief.

She had issued judicial review proceedings against the General Register Office (GRO) for not authorising the marriage.

Her action was also directed at Stormont's alleged failure to introduce legislation to allow a legally binding wedding event.

Following two days of legal argument, Sir Declan confirmed a decision on the appeal was being reserved.

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