HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
BASIC STRUCTURES OF THE LAW ON ADULT RELATIONSHIPS
Northern Ireland is a common law jurisdiction within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The island of Ireland was united with rest of the United Kingdom by the Acts of Union of 1800, but the island was subsequently partitioned and the south of Ireland eventually became an independent republic. Since the creation of Northern Ireland pursuant to the Government of Ireland Act 1920,
acts applying to the province have been passed at various times by the Parliament of Northern Ireland [operational between 1921 and 1972], the UK Parliament at Westminster and the current Northern Ireland Assembly [established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998].
Northern Ireland Orders in Council have been described as’ a third type of (quasi-) primary legislation’, which, ‘ [a]lthough mainly employed during periods of direct rule from Britain … continue to be used in certain policy areas’.
The law on marriage, civil partnership and cohabitation in Northern Ireland essentially mirrors that existing in England and Wales before the latter jurisdiction introduced same-sex marriage. Marriage (whether civil or religious) is exclusively for opposite-sex couples, civil partnership is a near-equivalent institution exclusively for same-sex couples (introduced via the same Civil Partnership Act 2004 as applies in England and Wales and Scotland), and there is no comprehensive recognition of informal cohabitation, even if cohabitants are recognised for discrete purposes in Northern Ireland.
Despite the broad equivalence of the Northern Irish and pre-2013 English positions, it is noteworthy that (for example) only a married couple per se could jointly adopt a child in Northern Ireland even after the introduction of civil partnerships. This blanket ban on non-marital couples being joint adopters was held to breach the European Convention on Human Rights by the House of Lords in Re G (Adoption: Unmarried Couple). While there was a further Court of Appeal judgment on the matter in 2013, the Department of Health announced following it that ‘unmarried couples, including same sex couples, and those in a civil partnership may apply to adopt’.