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Ashers: Gay cake row Belfast bakers case heads for Supreme Court

By Claire McNeilly

The UK's top court could be set to rule on the controversial same-sex cake row that has already racked up over £200,000 in legal fees, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

In the latest twist in the case in which baking firm Ashers was found to have breached equality laws by refusing to make a pro-gay marriage cake, Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin QC has stepped in.

Mr Larkin, who has a unique statutory power of referral in devolution issues, has confirmed that he is seeking an application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court over Ashers Baking Company, which has been fighting its case more than two years.

Last month, Court of Appeal judges in Belfast upheld an original judgment ruling that Ashers had discriminated against a gay activist for declining his order for a cake bearing the slogan "Support Gay Marriage".

A hearing has been scheduled for next Tuesday - the same day that the McArthur family, who own and run the bakery, are expected to learn that they themselves have no legal recourse to a potential challenge in the UK's highest court.

It will be the second time that Northern Ireland's top legal advisor has become involved in the case after an appeal that was scheduled for earlier this year was halted following a last-minute intervention by Mr Larkin.

If the case goes to the Supreme Court, the refusal to make a £36.50 cake, which sources said had already eclipsed £200,000 in legal fees, could increase by tens of thousands of pounds.

Last week, the McArthur family sent a message of thanks to thousands of their supporters in Northern Ireland, saying they "do not feel defeated or dismayed" after losing their appeal, adding that they were considering their legal options with their advisors following last month's landmark verdict by senior judges

In response to an enquiry by the Belfast Telegraph, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office confirmed that Mr Larkin was taking the case further.

The spokeswoman added: "I can confirm that an application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court has been listed for hearing on November 22."

Mr Larkin's arguments in relation to the validity of the laws that were used in the Ashers case will be heard by the same Supreme Court judges who will hear an appeal over a legal challenge to Brexit next month.

That relates to whether the High Court was right to rule that the Government must get parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50.

Simon Calvert, from The Christian Institute, which has backed the McArthur family throughout the case, said they were being kept up to date on every development in the case and "await the outcome of the Attorney General's request for a hearing at the UK Supreme Court with great interest".

"Lawyers for the McArthurs have explained to the family their understanding that there is no further right of appeal to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal has been formally asked to clarify whether this is the case and that request will be considered at a hearing on November 22," Mr Calvert added.

"Separately, the Attorney General is seeking to refer the case to the Supreme Court for it to rule on his arguments about whether the laws that were used against the McArthurs are constitutionally valid. We understand that the court will also deal with the Attorney General's request at the hearing on November 22.

"A reference to the Supreme Court on constitutional matters would not itself be an appeal of all the issues previously heard in the Court of Appeal.

"Given all these details it is obvious that this is a highly complex legal case.

"However, the Attorney General's involvement in this case shows the scale and scope of the issues at stake.

"He has unique constitutional powers to raise the key issues with the Supreme Court, and the very fact that those issues are now being raised shows how important this case is and how far-reaching the consequences of it may be."

It is understood that the issue of costs relating to the entire cake case thus far, both in the original case and the Court of Appeal, could be decided at the same hearing next Tuesday.

Northern Ireland-based Ashers, a name with Biblical connotations, has six branches, employs more than 80 people and delivers across the UK and Ireland.

If the Supreme Court option is unsuccessful, the family could, however, still mount and pursue a challenge through the European courts.

The Supreme Court judges include Northern Ireland's former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Brian Kerr, who became the last Law Lord to be appointed before the creation of The Supreme Court in 2009.

He served as Junior Crown Counsel from 1978 to 1983 and Senior Crown Counsel from 1988 to 1993, before then being appointed a Judge of the High Court and knighted.

He became Lord Chief Justice and joined the Privy Council in 2004.

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