The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has ruled that an adoption ban on gay couples is unlawful.
Presently a single gay or lesbian person can adopt children in Northern Ireland, but a couple in a civil partnership cannot.
Moves to allow gay couples to adopt had been on hold while the court heard an appeal from Stormont’s health minister, Edwin Poots.
Poots brought a legal challenge after a decision by Belfast High Court, which ruled the current adoption ban on gay and lesbian couples was unlawful.
NIHRC chief commissioner, Professor Michael O’Flaherty, said: “Through this case the commission has protected basic human rights and the best interests of the child.
“For children who are in need of a family in Northern Ireland, the importance of this case in widening the pool of prospective parents cannot be overstated.”
Prof O’Flaherty added that the appeal ruing meant “couples who are not married, those in civil partnerships and same sex couples will now be allowed to apply to be considered as adoptive parents”.
“The court has agreed with the commission that preventing someone from even being considered to adopt because of their relationship status is a discriminatory practice,” he said.
“This is fantastic news for lesbian and gay people and their families in Northern Ireland,” said Kieran Rose, chair of GLEN.
“In the Republic of Ireland the most significant inequality in our law for lesbian and gay headed families is the lack of legal protections, rights and status of children being parented by gay and lesbian couples.
“This carries significant negative consequences for these children who are excluded from the protections and security available to children in other families. This ruling will hopefully provide further momentum to ensure equal treatment for all lesbian and gay families on our island.”
In the Republic of Ireland single lesbian and gay people can apply to adopt but civil partners cannot apply as a couple. Lesbian and gay couples can and do foster children. There are many lesbian and gay families raising children in Ireland.
“Ireland has made huge progress in evolving towards full Constitutional equality for lesbian and gay couples,” said Rose.
“The Constitutional Convention overwhelmingly supported enacting laws to ensure equality of treatment in regard to parentage, guardianship and upbringing of children and the government is currently drafting legislation in this area. Addressing the inequality in our laws now needs to be prioritised.”