17 years ago, the Human Rights Act became law in the UK and we think that's worth celebrating!

To mark the occasion, over 17 days we are 'unwrapping' the Human Rights Act - with information & stories, we'll be sharing how the Act works and how it makes a difference. Many of the stories include examples taken from BIHR's work with people, community groups and public services.

Article 12: Right to marry and found a family

The Human Rights Act protects the right to marry and found a family.

The Human Rights Act protects our right to marry, if we are of marriageable age, and the right to start a family.

Other UK laws set out at what age we can marry, issues of capacity and consent, that it is an offence to marry when already married (bigamy) or to marry close relatives (incest), and so on. These laws, however, must not be arbitrary and must not interfere with the right, as protected by the Human Rights Act.

Although this right protects your right to found a family, it does not meant that you necessarily have the right to access reproductive technologies or adoption. 

In real life: Right to marry and found a family

Respecting the right of a man in a mental health hospital to marry 

Ishmael and his partner Eve had decided that they would like to get married. However, Ishmael was a long-term patient at a mental health hospital, and his consultant was not sure whether the marriage should be allowed as Ishmael’s mental health issues may have impacted his decision-making.

Having received support on using human rights from BIHR, staff at the hospital did not jump to conclusions about what was best for Ishmael based on his mental health issues. The consultant and care team decided to approach the issue by reflecting on how his human rights might be affected by their decision. They recognised that not allowing to Ishmael to get married might have a negative impact his right to marry and found a family (as well as his right to respect for private and family life), and that under the Human Rights Act staff have a duty to respect and protect Ishmael’s human rights. Making sure they were considering Ishmael’s human rights, staff felt better equipped to move away from a model of decision-making that focused solely on risk and harm avoidance, towards a model that included potential for the people in their care to lead full and flourishing lives.

Staff decided to take every step that they could in supporting Ishmael and Eve to marry.  

(Real life example from BIHR's work)

Recognising the right of trans people to marry 

Christine, a trans woman, was unable to marry because of the UK's laws on gender recognition (or lack of). At the time, there was no provision for trans people to have their legal gender changed or recognised in UK law. Christine thought this was a violation of her right to marry (as well as her right to family life and to be free from discrimination), so she took a human rights case to court. 

The court agreed, and ruled that Christine's right to marry and found a family, and her right to family life, had been unjustifiably infringed. This led to a change in UK law. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 now allows trans people to obtain legal recognition of their gender, and once they have done that, to get marry.

(Goodwin v UK, 2002)