High Court rules non-recognition of Humanist marriage is “discriminatory” as judgement is returned in landmark Humanist marriage case

Judgement was given this morning at 10:30 at the Hight Court in the case brought by six couples seeking legal recognition for Humanist marriages in England and Wales. The couples were seeking a declaration that the UK Government’s refusal to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in England and Wales was a breach of their human rights, which must be remedied.

High Court judge Mrs Justice Eady DBE ruled that the failure to provide legally recognised humanist marriages means that “the present law gives rise to… discrimination”. She also ruled that, in light of that, the Secretary of State for Justice “cannot… simply sit on his hands” and do nothing. However, she said, given that the Government is currently giving the matter consideration in the form of a review into marriage law by the Law Commission, the Government’s refusal to act immediately can be justified “at this time” and concluded, “Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an on-going review of the law of marriage in this country.” As a consequence, she declined to make a formal declaration that the Government is acting unlawfully at this time.

In the court hearing, the Government had argued that the couples had no right to humanist marriages, on the spurious basis that humanist marriages are not sufficiently connected to humanism to merit legal protection. At the same time, they also argued that English law already provides for humanist marriages by way of civil marriage. But in her decision the judge rejected these arguments, saying that there is an intimate link between couples’ beliefs and their choice of a humanist ceremony, reasoning, “in particular, in the way in which couples prepare for their wedding with their celebrant, in the statements made during the ceremony and in the emphasis on individual freedom of choice.”

The judge said that attention must now turn to the Government’s promised review of marriage law as the way that this discrimination must be addressed. The Government said in court that a consultation would be published in early September by the Law Commission.

Conservative Humanists Chairman James Baird commented: “While it is disappointing that the judgement raises questions about the best way of legally recognising Humanist marriages, and allows the Government more time to conclude the on-going legal review; the judgement does serve to make clare that it is now a matter of when, not if, Humanist marriages will be legally recognised in England and Wales. We hope the Government will take notice of the ‘discriminatory’ ruling, and act as quickly as is practical to restore equality for the thousands of couples each year who choose a Humanist wedding.”

Humanists UK has welcomed the court making clear that the failure to provide legal recognition of humanist marriages cannot be justified other than by saying that there is a review to redress the issue, but expressed disappointment at the Government being given more time to resolve the issue, particularly given how long humanist couples have already had to wait for legal recognition.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: “We’ve waited nineteen years for this reform since it was first considered by the Government in an ultimately abandoned review of marriage law, and seven years since Parliament gave the Government the power to bring about legal recognition of humanist marriages without requiring a new Act. Thanks to this judgment, it is at least now not a matter of if humanist marriages will be legally recognised but when, and we await the Government’s response to the judgment and their proposals to remedy the discrimination that has been identified by the court. We hope they will act quickly to give justice to the thousands of couples annually whose weddings are being denied legal recognition.”

Humanists UK had hoped that the judge would have made a declaration of incompatibility in respect of the current state of marriage law, to mark the breach and vindicate the rights of the claimants. Such an outcome would not have interfered with the current law reform process but would have sent a stronger message to the Government about the need for change.

Mr Copson continued: “For the particular couples who brought this case, although it is gratifying that the judge has recognised that failure to change the law is “discrimination”, it will of course be a great disappointment that she has not found a breach and has, instead, said they must wait for the current Law Commission review to conclude to find out how the Government will remedy this. We know that the claimants will now be considering whether to appeal. If they decide to do so, we will support them.”

The claimants are being represented by Ciaran Moynagh of Phoenix Law, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of Doughty Street Chambers, and Steve McQuitty BL of the Bar of Northern Ireland. Humanists UK has been supporting them in bringing the claim.

Ciaran Moynagh, solicitor at law firm Phoenix Law, said: “Notwithstanding our disappointment we are greatly encouraged by the contents of the Court ruling as the substantive argument has been won. Focus now shifts back to the Government to urgently provide assurances as to when legally recognised humanist marriage will come about. If these assurances are not forthcoming it is likely this legal journey will continue.”

You can see the full text of the judgement here.