By Hilary White

MARLBOROUGH, UK, April 30, 2008 ( ) – Two elderly sisters have lost a lengthy and complex court battle to have their relationship recognized in the same way as homosexual civil partners for purposes of inheritance and tax laws. In a 15-2 vote, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Joyce Burden, 90, and her sister, Sybil, 82, do not face unfair discrimination under British inheritance tax rules.

  Joyce and Sybil Burden have lived together in the same house all their lives, caring for older family members and now for one another. But with Britain’s crippling inheritance taxes, the family home will likely have to be sold when one of the sisters dies. Spouses and same-sex “partners” are not taxed when one dies and the sisters have attempted to have the new laws interpreted to allow them to enjoy similar exemptions.

  Taxes on the sisters’ house in Marlborough, Wilts, have been estimated at £200,000. The house has been assessed at about £875,000.

  The Burden sisters went as far as the European Court of Human Rights and were turned away on the grounds that their relationship was not the right sort to be considered. In 2006 the EU Court ruled 4-3 that the sisters were not entitled to the same rights as cohabiting homosexuals because their relationship was simply the result of birth.

  At the time, Joyce Burden said “I don’t have the status of a lesbian. This is an insult to single people who have looked after elderly parents. I don’t call that justice.”

  When the Labour government, under whom the British housing market has been artificially inflated through widespread speculation and property “flipping”, introduced the civil partnership law, the Burden sisters wrote to the European Court asking for help.

The Telegraph quotes the sisters’ letter, written without legal advice: “In desperation we write to you, for, as second-class citizens, we seek justice against the unfair laws we live with in the British Isles.”

  The European Court decision upholds a previous ruling in 2006. Joyce told the Daily Mail then, “This government is always going out of its way to give rights to people who have done nothing to deserve them.”

  But many have reasoned that since the law extended marriage-like benefits to same-sex partners whose “unions” have no physical possibility of fulfilling the objective nature and purpose of marriage, that the principle of granting legal benefits and recognition could logically be extended to any non-sexually oriented committed groupings of people such as pairs of siblings.

  Arguing on behalf of the Burden sisters, the Christian Institute said that the law ought to be extended to allow long-term cohabiting family members to register as civil partners, in the same way as same-sex couples. This would have made civil partnerships fairer and less like ‘gay marriage’.

  A proposal to change the law was passed in House of Lords but defeated in the Commons despite polls showing that between 84 and 91 per cent of the public supported it. The Christian Institute found that 91 per cent agreed that given that homosexual partners can be exempt, a daughter living with an elderly mother should be also be exempt. 86 per cent agreed that given the rights of cohabiting homosexuals, that sisters who have lived together more than 12 years should also be included in the inheritance tax exemption. 

  Joyce Burden said: “If we were lesbians we would have all the rights in the world. But we are sisters and it seems we have no rights at all.”

  Read related coverage:
  EU Court Denies UK Sisters Tax Benefits Granted to Homosexual Couples

  UK Sisters Petition for Same Tax Exemption Rights as Lesbian Couples