Re G (Adoption: Unmarried couple); Re P and Others (adoption: unmarried couple)

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
Judgment Date18 June 2008
Neutral Citation[2008] UKHL 38
Date18 June 2008
CourtHouse of Lords
In re P

and others (AP)

(Appellants) (Northern Ireland)

[2008] UKHL 38

Appellate Committee

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Baroness Hale of Richmond

Lord Mance



John O'Hara QC

Cathy Hughes

(Instructed by Emmet J Kelly & Co)

First Respondents:

Bernard McCloskey QC

David McMillen

(Instructed by Departmental Solicitors Office)

Second Respondents:

Michael Lavery QC

Gregory McGuigan

(Instructed by Official Solicitor to the Supreme Court)


My Lords,


The question in this case is whether it is consistent with Convention rights as defined in section 1(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 for a couple to be excluded from consideration as adoptive parents of a child on the ground only that they are not married. The woman is the natural mother of the child. The man is not the father but he and the woman have been living together for some years and treat the child as a member of the family. There is some evidence before the House about the nature of their relationship but there have been no findings by the court because the application has been rejected in limine on the grounds that they are not married to each other.


The legal obstacle to their adoption application is article 14 of the Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 (SI 1987/2203(NI 22)):

  • (1) An adoption order shall not be made on the application of more than one person except in the circumstances specified in paragraph[s] (2)…

  • (2) An adoption order may be made on the application of a married couple where both the husband and the wife have attained the age of 21 years.


On the other hand, section 6(1) of the 1998 Act provides that it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right and the Family Division of the High Court is for this purpose a public authority. If the 1987 Order were primary legislation, section 6(2) would require the court nevertheless to give effect to it. But the Order is not primary legislation as defined in section 21(1) of the 1998 Act and is therefore overridden by Convention rights.


The appellants rely upon article 14, which provides that the—

"enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status."


The appellants say that marriage (or its absence) is a status and that article 14 discriminates them in respect of the right set forth in article 8, namely, respect for their private and family life. The Crown, which has been joined as a respondent to the application, submits that being unmarried is not a status within the meaning of article 14 of the Convention. If that is wrong, the Crown accepts that the right to adopt a child falls within the ambit of article 8, but denies that the 1987 Order is discriminatory. It says that there are relevant and material differences between married and unmarried couples which justify the distinction.


In the Family Division, Gillen J accepted that being unmarried was a status but said that the difference in treatment could be justified as being in the best interests of children. In the Court of Appeal, the Lord Chief Justice did not think that being unmarried was a status because unmarried people were a formless group which might vary widely in their relevant characteristics. On the assumption that it fell within article 14, he agreed with the judge that the positions of married and unmarried couples were sufficiently different to justify the discrimination. Lord Justice Girvan did not deal with the status question but agreed with the Lord Chief Justice on justification and Lord Justice Higgins agreed with the Lord Chief Justice on both points.


It is clear that being married is a status. In Von Lorang v Administrator of Austrian Property [1927] AC 641, 653 Viscount Haldane said:

"…[T]he marriage gives the husband and wife a new legal position from which flow both rights and obligations with regard to the rest of the public. The status so acquired may vary according to the laws of different communities."


If being married is a status, it must follow that not being married is a status. If you claim that you are no longer or never have been married to someone, you may apply for a "declaration as to marital status" under article 31 of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (SI 1989/677(NI 4)). It is true that in respect of everything except not being married, unmarried people are a somewhat formless group. But, then, so are people who are not of noble birth, and yet birth is one of the grounds upon which article 14 expressly forbids discrimination. I therefore have no difficulty with the concept of being unmarried as a status within the meaning of article 14.


The European Court of Justice does not seem to have had any difficulty either. In PM v United Kingdom (2005) 18 BHRC 668 the applicant complained that he was not allowed to deduct from his taxable income the payments he made for the maintenance of his daughter solely because he had not been married to the mother. The Court said:

"27… This applicant differs from a married father only as regards the issue of marital status and may, for the purposes of this application, claim to be in an relevantly similar position.

28. The justification for the difference in treatment relied on by the Government is the special regime of marriage which confers specific rights and obligations on those who choose to join it. The Court recalls that it has in some cases found that differences in treatment on the basis of marital status has had objective and reasonable justification… It may be noted however that as a general rule unmarried fathers, who have established family life with their children, can claim equal rights of contact and custody with married fathers.… In the present case, the applicant has been acknowledged as the father and has acted in that role. Given that he has financial obligations towards his daughter, which he has duly fulfilled, the Court perceives no reason for treating him differently from a married father, now divorced and separated from the mother, as regards the tax deductibility of those payments. The purpose of the tax deductions was purportedly to render it easier for married fathers to support a new family; it is not readily apparent why unmarried fathers, who undertook similar new relationships, would not have similar financial commitments equally requiring relief.

29. The Court concludes therefore that there has been a violation of Article 14 of the Convention in conjunction with Article 1 of the first Protocol in this case."


The question, therefore, is whether unequal treatment can be justified. For this purpose, it is important to be precise about the way in which the distinction between married and unmarried couples operates. No couple, whether married or not, has a right to adopt a child. Article 9 of the 1987 Order says that—

"In deciding on any course of action in relation to the adoption of a child, a court or adoption agency shall regard the welfare of the child as the most important consideration and shall—

  • (a) have regard to all the circumstances, full consideration being given to—

    • (i) the need to be satisfied that adoption, or adoption by a particular person or persons, will be in the best interests of the child; and

    • (ii) the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child throughout his childhood; and

    • (iii) the importance of providing the child with a stable and harmonious home; and

  • (b) so far as practicable, first ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child regarding the decision and give due consideration to them, having regard to his age and understanding."


Eligibility to apply for an adoption order is therefore only the first step on the road to adoption. The applicants must then be thoroughly scrutinised to satisfy the court that adoption by them is in the interests of the child and, among many other things, that they will be able to provide the child with a stable and harmonious home. But the effect of article 14 is that even if the court considers that an applicant couple pass all these tests - that adoption by them is plainly in the best interests of the child, that the child wishes to be adopted, that their relationship is loving, stable and harmonious - their virtues else, be they as pure as grace, as infinite as man may undergo—nevertheless, the court is bound to refuse the order and take a course which, ex hypothesi, is not in the best interests of the child on the sole ground that the applicants are not married.


The argument for the Crown is that although there may be some hard or anomalous cases in which an impeccable couple wishes to adopt a child but has good reason for not wishing to marry, there are in general rational grounds for distinguishing between married and unmarried couples as a class. Statistics show that married couples, who have accepted a legal commitment to each other, tend to have more stable relationships than unmarried couples, whose relationships may vary from quasi-marital to ephemeral. So, for example, Gillen J said, in para 23, that a difference in treatment had a legitimate aim, namely, the best interests of "children" (sc. children generally) and that the interests of the applicants must be balanced against the interests of "the community as a whole". The Lord Chief Justice said, in para 38, that confining eligibility to married couples "has the obvious purpose of securing the familial stability that an adoptive child needs". Girvan LJ said, in para 26, that "drawing the...

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