A high profile appeal by Christian bakers who were found to have discriminated against a gay customer has been dramatically halted to facilitate an intervention by Northern Ireland’s top legal adviser.
Attorney General John Larkin QC has made a last-minute request to make representation in the case about any potential conflict between the region’s equality legislation and European human rights laws.
The McArthur family’s refusal to bake the customer’s order for a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan was ruled unlawful last year.
Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: “It is most unfortunate this issue has arisen only two days before this hearing.
“Although we have all tried to see if we could proceed with the case given the amount of work that has been done.
“It seems to us that it is simply not possible to do that without running into some risk of fairness in the hearing.
“We are not going to proceed with the hearing today.”
Gay rights activist Gareth Lee, a member of LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had wanted a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the slogan Support Gay Marriage for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia in May 2014.
He paid in full when placing the order at Ashers’ Belfast branch, but two days later the company phoned to say it could not be processed.
The high-profile case was heard over three days last March.
Delivering her reserved judgment two months later, District Judge Isobel Brownlie found Ashers directly discriminated against Mr Lee who had been treated “less favourably”, contrary to the law.
Ordering the bakers to pay agreed damages of £500, the judge said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which monitors compliance with the region’s anti-discrimination laws, took the landmark legal action on behalf of Mr Lee.
Mr McArthur said the bakery treated Mr Lee like any other customer.
The appeal, which has been adjourned until May, was being heard before three of Northern Ireland’s most senior judges.
Afterwards, Dr Michael Wardlow - chief commissioner with the Equality Commission, expressed disappointment at the delay.
He said: “We came here today for this very important case and we were looking forward to hearing the arguments.
“We are very disappointed that at this very late stage another argument has come in and that has to be resolved.
The reality is it could take months.”
Throughout the brief hearing Mr Lee sat in the front row of the public gallery beside representatives of the Equality Commission.
Three rows behind were Ashers directors Karen and Colin McArthur with their son, the firm’s general manager Daniel McArthur, and his wife Amy, plus Simon Calvert from the Christian Institute, which has garnered public support and financial backing for the bakers.
Also in court were Democratic Unionist MLAs Paul Givan and Edwin Poots, a former Stormont health minister.
Much of the hearing was dominated by complex legal argument around how the so-called “devolution issue” could be handled.
Robin Allen QC, representing the Equality Commission, said it was up to the court to decide whether to “salami slice” proceedings.
He added: “I dive into these waters with some degree of trepidation.”
However, Sir Declan Morgan said there was a danger of “losing track” of the argument if the case was split in two with any arguments from the Attorney General being heard at a later stage.
He added: “We all have life jackets on.”
Outside the court, Mr Calvert spoke on behalf of the McArthur family.
He said: “The court has adjourned the hearing essentially because of the importance of the issues at stake. The Attorney General has raised a number of issues. We were neutral as to whether those issues came in but the court wants to hear them.
“It just confirms that this is a really important case and the court and all the parties want to make sure all the issues are properly rehearsed in court and we will be back on May 9 to do that.”
The hearing has been adjourned.