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Same-sex marriage ban in Northern Ireland to stay for now as judgment reserved until next year

Court of Appeal expected to come to a decision early next year

By Alan Erwin

Judgment was reserved today in a renewed legal challenge to the ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Two couples are attempting to overturn a previous ruling that the prohibition does not breach their human rights.

But Attorney General John Larkin QC argued they lack standing to bring the case because they were not victims of an unlawful act.

The Court of Appeal is expected to come to a decision early next year.

Unlike England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland has not legalised same-sex weddings.

But Grainne Close and her partner Shannon Sickles, along with Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane, claim they are being subjected to discrimination based on their sexuality.

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

Last year, a High Court judge dismissed the case after finding that it was a matter for legislators rather than the judiciary.

Lawyers for Ms Close, Ms Sickles and the Flanagan Kanes are appealing the verdict, insisting that the state's failure to include the people of Northern Ireland in same-sex marriage legislation breaches their human rights.

Before the collapse of devolution, MLAs held five votes on the issue - with a narrow majority in favour of the move back on the last occasion in November 2015.

However, the Democratic Unionist Party deployed a petition of concern mechanism to block the motion.

Counsel for the Department of Finance told appeal judges that the legitimate aim around the current position is to preserve and promote the institution of marriage between a man and a woman.

However, the two couples' legal representatives claimed gays and lesbians have been wrongly excluded from legislation which allows those in the rest of the UK to wed.

Maintaining the ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland should not be used as a "veil for homophobia", they said.

Part of their case includes a bid to secure a declaration that the current regime is incompatible with their right to marry.

According to the Attorney General, however, this point was never dealt with in the High Court and therefore should not be raised on appeal.

"It's not open to a party for the first time to introduce a new cause of action," he said.

Mr Larkin also argued that no unlawful act featured because the couples did not try to get married - a point disputed by their lawyers.

Following closing submissions, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, sitting with Lord Justices Stephens and Treacy, reserved judgment.

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