A heterosexual couple denied the right to enter into a civil partnership have won their claim at the Supreme Court that they had suffered discrimination.
Rebecca Steinfeld, 37, and Charles Keidan, 41, had been prevented a legal union because the Civil Partnership Act 2004 says only same-sex couples are eligible.
Today’s decision was greeted by applause in court by supporters of Steinfeld and Keidan, and will put pressure on ministers to change the law. The decision is not binding on the government.
In a statement outside court the couple described being “elated” by the ruling.
Steinfeld said: “Today we are a step closer to opening civil partnerships to all, a measure that would be fair, popular and good for families and children across the country.”
Keidan said there was now only one option – “to extend civil partnerships to all”.
He said it was hoped the Government will “act with urgency” for the sake of thousands of couples across the country.
The academics, who live in Hammersmith, west London, suffered defeat at the Court of Appeal in February last year, but were given the go-ahead in August for a Supreme Court hearing.
Five justices ruled on Wednesday that the ban on different sex couples entering into civil partnership under the Act is “incompatible” with human rights laws.
Announcing the decision, Lord Kerr said the Government “does not seek to justify the difference in treatment between same sex and different sex couples”.
He added: “To the contrary, it accepts that the difference cannot be justified.”
The ruling reads: “The interests of the community in denying those different-sex couples who have a genuine objection to being married the opportunity to enter into a civil partnership are unspecified and not easy to envisage.
“In contrast, the denial of those rights for an indefinite period may have far-reaching consequences for those who wish to avail themselves – and who are entitled to assert them – now.”
The justices said the government should have eliminated the inequality of treatment between same-sex and opposite-sex partners when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act came into force in 2013.
“This could have been done by abolishing civil partnerships or by instantaneously extending them to different sex couples … Taking time to evaluate whether to abolish or extend could never amount to a legitimate aim for the continuance of the discrimination,” the ruling reads.
Lord Kerr said what was sought by the Government was “tolerance of the discrimination while it sorts out how to deal with it”.
He concluded: “That cannot be characterised as a legitimate aim.”
In the court’s written ruling, Lord Kerr said it was “salutary to recall that a declaration of incompatibility does not oblige the government or Parliament to anything”.
The couple, who have had two daughters in the three and a half years since launching their challenge, had also claimed the Government’s position is “incompatible with equality law”.
During the hearing, barrister Karon Monaghan QC told the court the couple have “deep-rooted and genuine ideological objections to marriage” and were “not alone” in their views.
She said matrimony was “historically heteronormative and patriarchal” and the couple’s objections were “not frivolous”.
Monaghan added: “These are important issues, no small matters, and they are serious for my clients because they cannot marry conformable with their conscience and that should weigh very heavily indeed.”
The Court of Appeal earlier agreed that the couple had established a potential violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which relates to discrimination, taken with Article 8, which refers to respect for private and family life.
But, by a majority of two to one, the appeal judges said the interference was justified by the Government’s policy of “wait and evaluate”.
The Government said it was decided, after public consultations and debate in Parliament, not to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, abolish them or phase them out at that stage.
The aim was to see how extending marriage to same-sex couples impacted on civil partnerships before making a final decision which, if reversed in a few years’ time, would be disruptive, unnecessary and extremely expensive.
Abolishing civil partnerships for same-sex couples to end the discrimination could mean dissolving legal ties that unite 63,000 gay couples – a course of action that would trigger political furore and legal uncertainty, the Guardian suggested.