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Equal Love appeal to European Court of Human Rights

Source: Norman S. Miwambo
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A total of eight couples will file joint application to the European Court of Human Rights on December 21, in a bid to challenge refusals for gay marriage and heterosexual civil partnership, this newspaper has learnt.

"Banning same-sex marriage and different-sex civil partnerships violates Articles 8, 12 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights," said Professor Robert Wintemute of the School of Law at Kings College London. He is set to outline the legal basis of the Equal Love challenge to the current proscriptions.

"It's discriminatory and obnoxious, like having separate drinking fountains or beaches for different racial groups,” Prof. Wintemute said. He added; ”even though the water is the same.”

The professor further explained that: “The only function of the twin bans is to mark lesbian and gay people as socially and legally inferior to heterosexual people.”

"I am confident that we have a good chance of persuading the European Court of Human Rights that the UK's system of segregating couples into two 'separate but equal' legal institutions violates the Convention. I would predict that same-sex couples will be granted access to marriage in the UK and that this will be because the UK Government will eventually accept that it cannot defend the current discriminatory system," he said.

"Eight British couples will file a joint application to the European Court of Human Rights next Tuesday, 21 December, in a bid to overturn the twin bans on gay civil marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships," said Peter Tatchell a human rights campaigner.

Mr. Tatchell is coordinator of the Equal Love campaign which seeks to end sexual orientation discrimination in civil marriage and civil partnership law in the UK.

According to Mr. Tatchell, December 21, has been chosen to file the legal case to the European Court because the date marks the fifth anniversary of the first civil partnership ceremonies in England.

"Over the last two months, four same-sex couples were refused marriage licenses at register offices in Greenwich, Northampton and Petersfield. During the same period, four heterosexual couples were turned away when they applied for civil partnerships in Islington, Camden, Bristol and Aldershot," added Mr Tatchell.

He was in reference to several couples who have been denied civil marriage licence who include: Reverend Sharon Ferguson, 52, and her partner Franka Strietzel,49, were the first to apply for a civil marriage licence at Greenwich Register Office at the Town Hall in Woolwich on November 2. In a direct challenge to the UK's legal ban on same-sex marriage, their application was rejected on the grounds that UK law stipulates that marriage partners have to be male and female.

A second rejection was a heterosexual couple of Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle, who were refused a civil partnership at Islington Register Office in London this morning on November 9. The registrar cited the legal ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships as the reason for the refusal.

A third was a gay couple between Matthew Toresen, 48, and Scott Maloney, 42, whose application for a civil marriage licence was rejected by Northampton register office on November 16, at the Guildhall in Northampton.

The fourth rejection was a heterosexual Quaker couple of Ian Goggin and Kristin Skarsholt, which was refused a civil partnership at Bristol Register Office this morning, November 23. The registrar cited the legal ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships as the reason for the refusal.

The fifth rejection involved Colette French, 21, and her partner Katie Green, 21, a lesbian couple's application for a civil marriage licence at that was rejected by Petersfield register office in Hampshire, southern England. The register office staff - Lesley Romano and Gaynor Russell who refused to put their rejection in writing and was then described by the lesbian couple as "officious, unhelpful, obstructive and dismissive."

The sixth gay couple of David Watters, 40, and Richard Hull, 49, had their application for a civil marriage licence turned down on December 2, at Greenwich register office in south-east London.

The seventh was a heterosexual couple, Stephanie Munro and Andrew O'Neill, who were refused a civil partnership at Camden Register Office, on December 8. The registrar also cited the legal ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships as the reason for the refusal.

A heterosexual couple of Lucy Hilken and Tim Garrett had their application for a civil partnership refused at Aldershot Register Office on Tuesday, December 14, to become the seventh rejection in a period of less than 2 months. The registrar cited the legal ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships as the reason for the rejection.

They were turned away on the grounds that UK law since 1973 stipulates that marriage partners have to be male and female. The registrar cited the legal ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships as the reason for the refusal.

According to Mr. Tatchell, all the eight couples received their refusal letters from their register offices.

“We are now using as the evidential basis to challenge in the European Court of Human Rights the exclusion of gay couples from civil marriage and the prohibition of straight civil partnerships,” said Mr Tatchell. He added: “Since there is no difference in the rights and responsibilities involved in gay marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships.”

“There is no point or justification in having two mutually exclusive and discriminatory systems,” Mr. Tatchell argues.

"Outlawing black marriages would provoke uproar. The prohibition on gay marriages should provoke similar outrage.

"The bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships are a form of sexual apartheid - one law for gay couples and another law for heterosexual partners. Two wrongs don't make a right. In a democratic society, we should all be equal before the law," said Mr Tatchell.

According to the coordinator, the legal case will be launched at a news conference in the Great Hall of Kings College London at 10am on Tuesday 21 December.

The news conference will be chaired by Peter Tatchell, and feature all eight couples and their legal advisor, Professor Robert Wintemute of the School of Law at Kings College London. He will outline the legal basis of the Equal Love challenge to the current proscriptions.

The news conference will be followed by a discussion chaired by Lord Lester QC and addressed by invited speakers. Both these events are open to the media and public.

Prof. Wintemute explains the legal basis of the application to the European Court of Human Rights:

1. Why and how we are able to take the Equal Love legal case direct to the European Court of Human Rights, without first exhausting the UK courts

"We have decided to take our case directly to the European Court of Human Rights for two reasons," said Professor Robert Wintemute.

"First, anyone challenging discriminatory legislation under the Human Rights Act 1998 has to worry that losing could mean being ordered to pay the UK Government's legal costs. This happened in 2006 to a lesbian couple, Susan Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger, when they tried to have their lawful Canadian marriage recognised as a marriage in the UK. Our government would only recognise it as a civil partnership. Their case was rejected by a High Court judge, who ordered them to pay the UK Government £25,000 in legal costs. They could not afford to appeal the decision. In contrast, individuals who lose in the European Court of Human Rights do not have to pay the UK Government's legal costs. The eight couples bringing this joint legal action are not well off and are not in a position to take the risk of a potentially huge legal bill.

"Second, even if we were to win in a UK court, the Human Rights Act 1998 only allows a UK court to make a 'declaration of incompatibility', if the court deems legislation to be discriminatory. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 states that the parties to a marriage must be male and female. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 stipulates that the parties to a civil partnership must be of the same sex. A 'declaration of incompatibility' is not legally binding, so the UK Government is free to ignore it. Even if the declaration is made by the UK Supreme Court, the UK Government is able to say: 'We'll wait to hear what the European Court of Human Rights has to say.' This limit on the powers of UK courts under the Human Rights Act 1998 is a defect in the UK's legal protection of human rights. Because of this defect, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed in 2008 that a 'declaration of incompatibility' is not an effective remedy, and does not have to be exhausted before making an application to the Court against the UK Government."

2. The key points and arguments of the Equal Love legal case

"Our case is that the combination of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 creates a system that segregates couples into two separate legal institutions, with different names but identical rights and responsibilities. The segregation of couples is based on their sexual orientations: same-sex couples are excluded from marriage, and different-sex couples are excluded from civil partnership. Under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, all differences in treatment affecting other Convention rights - in this case the rights to marry in Article 12 and to respect for family life in Article 8 - must have an 'objective and reasonable justification'. The European Court of Human Rights has said that differences in treatment based on sexual orientation 'require particularly serious reasons by way of justification', like differences in treatment based on race, religion or sex. The only apparent reason for maintaining the system of segregation is to use the law to mark same-sex couples as socially and legally inferior and different-sex couples as socially and legally superior. Same-sex couples are excluded from marriage, which is the universal system for legally recognizing a loving, committed, sexual relationship between two adults. This legal segregation is similar to having separate beaches and drinking fountains for white and black people, as existed in South Africa under apartheid. It is comparable to having a system of marriage for Christians and civil partnership for non-Christians."

3. Why previous ECHR rulings against same-sex marriage might not apply in our case

"On 24 June 2010, the European Court of Human Rights issued its first judgment in a case in which a same-sex couple was seeking the right to marry. The Court found no violation of the European Convention on Human Rights in the case of two men, Horst Schalk and Johan Kopf, who were seeking the right to marry in Austria. Although the Court ruled that Article 12 of the Convention did not yet impose an obligation on European governments to allow same-sex couples to marry, the Court changed its interpretation of Article 12, saying that it 'would no longer consider that the right to marry enshrined in Article 12 must in all circumstances be limited to marriage between two persons of the opposite sex'. When more Council of Europe countries than the current 7 (out of 47) allow same-sex couples to marry, the Court will be willing to consider ordering all of them to do so. The number European countries that allow same-sex marriage increased from three in 2005 to seven in 2010, and could double again while this case is pending. Same-sex marriage bills are currently being considered by the parliaments in Luxembourg and Slovenia, and a bill is expected soon in Finland. With a change of government, Denmark and France may follow suit.

In our case, we are not asking the Court to order Italy, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and 35 other Council of Europe member states to allow same-sex couples to marry. Some countries in continental Europe, like Austria, do not want to allow same-sex couples to marry, because they are not ready to allow them to adopt children jointly, or to grant lesbian couples access to donor insemination. But this is not the situation in the UK. In 2002, same-sex couples in England and Wales were granted the right to adopt children jointly. In 2004, they won the right to register a civil partnership and acquire all of the rights of married different-sex couples, except in relation to assisted reproduction. In 2008, they achieved full equality in relation to assisted reproduction, including donor insemination. We are asking the Court to require the UK Government to explain why, after taking these politically difficult decisions voluntarily, and having gone so far to ensure equality between marriage and civil partnerships, the UK should be allowed to withhold access to marriage from same-sex couples, and access to civil partnership from different-sex couples. Given that UK marriages and civil partnerships confer identical rights and responsibilities, the UK government will have to justify to the European Court its maintenance of two different institutions that discriminate based on sexual orientation.

"We will draw on the EU Court of Justice's requirement of consistency, set out in its Maruko judgment in 2008. The EU Court ruled that it was up to Germany to decide whether or not to have a registered partnership law for same-sex couples, and how many rights to grant registered same-sex partners. But once Germany decided voluntarily to pass a registered partnership law, and to put registered same-sex partners 'in a situation comparable to that of spouses', Germany could not exclude them from survivor's benefits under employment-related pension plans that fell within the scope of EU anti-discrimination law. EU freedom of movement law also requires consistency with regard to the immigration rights of same-sex partners who are not EU citizens, 'if the legislation of the host Member State treats registered partnerships as equivalent to marriage'.

"Our case is essentially that the European Convention on Human Rights, read in conjunction with developments in European Union law, imposes an obligation of consistency on European governments that voluntarily create an institution like civil partnership, and then grant same-sex civil partners all of the rights of different-sex spouses.

The European Court of Human Rights should, as a matter of consistency and for the avoidance of pettiness, require the UK and other countries in the same position, like Denmark, to take the final step and grant access to the institution of marriage. Anyone who has attended a civil partnership ceremony, and seen how similar it is to a marriage ceremony, knows how extraordinarily petty it is for the UK Government to say that a same-sex couple can have all the rights and responsibilities of marriage through an institution with a different name (civil partnership) but cannot have access to the word and institution of marriage.

4. Our assessment of the chances of success
"I am confident that we have a good chance of persuading the European Court of Human Rights that the UK's system of segregating couples into two 'separate but equal' legal institutions violates the Convention. I would predict that same-sex couples will be granted access to marriage in the UK and that this will be because the UK Government will eventually accept that they cannot defend the current discriminatory system. The UK Government should settle the case, and voluntarily introduce a bill in the UK Parliament, so that the European Court of Human Rights does not have to issue a judgment. This bill should simply repeal the twin bans on same-sex marriage and different-sex civil partnership, and give every couple, different-sex or same-sex, a choice of marriage or civil partnership, as in the Netherlands, Quebec and South Africa. This bill would bring 'Equal Love' to the UK," said Professor Wintemute.