Legal Cheek

Supreme Court will travel to Belfast to hear ‘gay cake’ case

Lady Hale and friends out on the road

The Supreme Court will be sitting in Northern Ireland on 30 April next year to hear a case of massive public interest.

The venue of choice will be the Inns of Court Library at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast. One hundred members of the public will be able to go and watch, which is actually about 30 more than London’s Courtroom 1 capacity (though the venue of the court’s Scottish excursion, which we’ll come on to soon, was bigger).

But not all 11 justices will be going on the four-day trip. The court has confirmed that it’ll be president Lady Hale heading north, joined by her deputy Lord Mance, as well as Lord Kerr, Lord Hodge and Lady Black. Hale said:

“I am delighted that the Supreme Court will be sitting in Belfast in 2018… My colleagues and I strongly believe that the experience of watching a case in person should not be limited to those within easy reach of London.”

The Westminster court revealed its ambitions to head out onto the road under Lord Neuberger’s presidency. Thankfully for him, Neuberger managed to squeeze in one cross country trip before he retired this summer, him and colleagues leaving their central London digs and heading to Edinburgh in June.

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Though Neuberger has now left, his passion for travelling the country seems to be shared by his replacement, Hale. She continued:

“This will be a fantastic opportunity for local people to see the court in action on their doorstep. The Supreme Court is committed to being one of the most open and accessible in the world and, like all our hearings, our Belfast cases will be livestreamed via our website for everyone who cannot get to see us in person.”

Those interested in legal affairs may well want to take Hale’s comment on board and consider putting the Supreme Court’s livestreaming function to good use. This is because the five justices will be hearing a particularly interesting case while in Belfast: Lee v Ashers Baking Company, also known as the ‘gay cake’ case.

The important and well-publicised human rights case is about a cake a gay rights activist, Gareth Lee, tried to buy from a Northern Irish bakery called Ashers. While the bakery initially accepted his order of a cake bearing the slogan “Support Gay marriage”, the owners then decided making it would run counter to their Christian beliefs and refunded him the money. Lee claimed this was discriminatory and unlawful.

The bakery has lost its case both at first instance and on appeal. Many feel this was the right decision: the courts cannot be seen to be allowing providers of public services to pick and choose their customers in this way.

However, there are strong arguments to the opposite effect.

Speaking to Legal Cheek in the wake of last year’s Court of Appeal judgment, human rights specialist Shoaib Khan voiced his concerns:

“This was an important opportunity for the court to demonstrate its support for the right to freedom of religion, but it seems to have ended up further alienating religious groups. It is time that human rights groups and the legal system started treating the right to freedom of religion with the same respect afforded to other fundamental rights.”

Legal affairs fans will no doubt be watching with eagle eyes to see who the final appeal court side with. We can’t think of a more interesting or more popular case for the justices to sink their teeth into during their Belfast debut. Cardiff next?