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Judge dismisses legal challenge by humanists, finds weddings discrimination to be justified with Law Commission review

A High Court judge has dismissed a legal challenge brought by six couples who are humanists and who complained that the legal recognition of different forms of religious wedding ceremony under English law does not similarly extend to weddings carried out in accordance with their humanist beliefs.

The claimants contended that this gave rise to an unjustified discrimination in the exercise of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and thus breached the Human Rights Act 1998.  

Permission to apply for judicial review had been granted by Mrs Justice Steyn on the sole ground whereby the claimants contended that English law breached their rights under article 14, taken together with articles 8, 9 and/or 12 of the ECHR.

The Secretary of State for Justice resisted the claim, contending that the system of marriage permitted under English law provided the claimants with a legally recognised, non-religious ceremony that was sufficiently capable of accommodating their wishes and beliefs.

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The Justice Secretary submitted that any difference between that which was permitted and the recognition of humanist marriages sought by the claimants did not satisfy the requirements for a claim of discrimination contrary to article 14 ECHR.  

The remedy sought by the claimants in the claim was in the form of declaratory relief; specifically, they sought a declaration that the legislation providing for the legal recognition of marriage in England violated their rights under the HRA, and a declaration of incompatibility pursuant to section 4 of the HRA. 

The defendant Secretary of State disputed the claimants’ claim that there had been any violation of their rights, arguing that, even if there was any difference in treatment between the claimants and their religious comparators, the measures under challenge were objectively and reasonably justified, not least given ongoing consideration of reform in this area of social policy. 

In Harrison & Ors, R (On the Application Of) v Secretary of State for Justice [2020] EWHC 2096 (Admin) Mrs Justice Eady considered the questions identified in R (S) v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire [2004] 1 WLR 2196 and found that:

  1. the facts of this case fell within the ambit of article 9 ECHR;
  2. there was a difference of treatment in respect of that right between the claimants and others put forward for comparison;
  3. this difference was on a prescribed ground under article 14 ECHR;
  4. the claimants’ comparators [those who hold religious beliefs] were in an analogous situation; but
  5. the defendant had demonstrated a legitimate aim in seeking to address differences in treatment as part of a wholesale reform of the law of marriage and, given the on-going review [by the Law Commission], had - at this time - established that a fair balance had been struck between the individual rights of the claimants and wider community interests.  

The claim was therefore dismissed. 

Humanists UK said it welcomed the court making clear that the failure to provide legal recognition of humanist marriages could not be justified other than by saying that there was 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”.

Ciaran Moynagh, solicitor at law firm Phoenix Law who acted for the claimants, 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.”

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