Northern Ireland news

NI marriage ban for same-sex couples 'unlawful discrimination', court told

Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles, and Christopher Patrick Flanagan and Henry Edmond Kane. Picture by Hugh Russell

SAME-sex couples denied the opportunity to marry in Northern Ireland are being subjected to unlawful discrimination, the Court of Appeal heard yesterday.

Senior judges were told a failure to introduce rights available to those living in the rest of the UK cannot be justified.

The case was made as two gay couples renewed their legal challenge to the ban on them getting wed.

Grainne Close and her partner Shannon Sickles, along with Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane, are seeking to overturn a ruling that the prohibition does not breach their human rights under European law.

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

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

Last year a judge dismissed the case after finding that it was a matter for Stormont rather than the courts.

Although the challenge is being taken against the Department of Finance, counsel for the two couples insisted there was a "pan-UK basis" in the continued absence of a functioning executive.

Ronan Lavery QC argued the failure by the state to include the people of Northern Ireland in same-sex marriage legislation breached their human rights.

"It's unlawful discrimination against the applicants on the basis of their sexuality," he contended.

A narrow majority of MLAs backed same-sex marriage in November 2015, but the DUP deployed a petition of concern mechanism to block the motion.

The court heard that 15 out of almost 50 jurisdictions within the Council of Europe have now brought in same-sex marriage.

But Strasbourg has left it up to individual states to decide on the policy.

Pressed to define the obligation allegedly being breached, Mr Lavery submitted that once the marriage rights were brought in they should apply equally across the UK.

The challenge is being resisted by lawyers for the department and the Attorney General, John Larkin QC.

Mr Larkin argued that the applicants lacked legal standing to bring the action.

As the appeal continued, the two couples told of their continued dismay at the bar on getting married.

Speaking outside court, Ms Close said they were left relying on the courts to "step up to the mark" in Stormont's absence.

"We don't want to be here, but it's our only avenue," she said.

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