The UK Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples was discriminatory and in breach of human rights. Presently heterosexual couples may only marry while same-sex couples can either marry or take up a civil partnership under the Marriage (Same Sex couples) Act 2013 and Civil Partnership Act 2004 respectively.
The appellants sought judicial review of the respondent’s ongoing decision not to make amendments to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to allow different-sex couples enter into civil partnerships. The appellants were a different-sex couple in a committed long-term relationship, which they wish to formalise. They had genuine ideological objections to marriage based upon what they considered to be its historically patriarchal nature. The High Court and Court of Appeal dismissed their claim and held that prohibiting different-sex couples entering into civil partnerships did not constitute a breach of the appellants’ rights under article 14 (the prohibition on discrimination) together with article 8 (the right to respect for private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Supreme Court allowed the appeal, remarking that when the Marriage (Same Sex couples) Act 2013 was enacted, Parliament recognised that inequality was a foreseen consequence of choosing not to abolish same-sex civil partnerships or to extend them to different-sex couples.
The Court rejected the respondent’s contention that European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case law required a wide margin of appreciation and afforded significant discretion in relation to the timing of legislative change in recognising different forms of relationships. It was held that in cases of unequal treatment on grounds of sexual orientation, the margin of discretion was narrow.
Interference with an ECHR right was only justifiable if its legitimate aim was intrinsically linked and significantly important to limiting the fundamental right. The Court found the Government’s non-action in taking time to evaluate whether to abolish or extend civil partnerships could never amount to a legitimate aim as the continuance of the discrimination was not connected to the justification for discrimination.
The Court remarked that a balance must be struck between the rights and interests of the community when denying or permitting different-sex civil partnerships. The Court ultimately made a declaration that by precluding a different-sex couple from entering into a civil partnership, sections 1 and 3 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 were incompatible with article 14 taken in conjunction with article 8 of the ECHR.
Click here for a copy of the judgement and press summary.