Home Office 'sham marriage' policy breaches couples' rights, court rules

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The Independent Online

A government crackdown on "sham marriages" is in disarray after three young couples determined to wed in Britain won a court victory over Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary.

Izabela Trzcinska, who is a Pole living legally in this country, was not allowed to marry Mahmoud Baiai, from Algeria, who entered the country illegally.

Supported by a couple who are Kosovan and Albanian and a Turkish couple, they took their fight to the High Court, which ruled yesterday that their human rights had been breached.

It was the first case to come to the courts under the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to marry and found a family.

Delivering the landmark verdict, which could affect hundreds of couples a year, Mr Justice Silber told the Government there was "no adequate justification" for the tough new marriage rules being used as a form of immigration control.

Since last year, weddings involving most foreign nationals only get the go-ahead if they take place in the Church of England or if the couple can prove they have settled permanently in the UK. Otherwise they have to obtain a "certificate of marriage approval" from the Home Office at the cost of £135 and then marry at a designated register office.

The new rules were brought in after Home Office statistics suggested a sharp rise in bogus weddings, from 756 in 2001 to 2,712 in 2003.

But Mr Justice Silber said the rules discriminated against the three couples, who would have been allowed to marry if they were Anglican, on the grounds of religion and nationality.

Home Office lawyers argued that the exemption for the Church of England was valid because there was no evidence of sham marriage rackets attempting to use its ceremonies. The judge ruled that people who wanted to marry within other faiths, including other branches of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or Sikhism, were not given a similar benefit of the doubt where ministers of religion were content the proposed wedding was genuine.

The Home Office was forced to suspend the controversial rules yesterday. It was examining the "options for the future", including whether to appeal.

Habib Rahman, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, accused the Government of causing "heartbreak for many genuine couples". He said: "We urge the Home Office to take note of this ruling and not to delay in repealing this cruel and discriminatory regime."

The couples are seeking damages for having suffered discrimination. In the case of the Turks, their child was born out of wedlock because the marriage was delayed by the Home Office.

Amit Sachdev, with the human rights firm Sheikh & Co, said the marriage rules "once again showed the Government's abject failure to respect the human rights of immigrants".