Italy gay marriage
A gay couple pose with Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino (C) during a ceremony to recognise their marriage in Rome, Italy in October 2014 Reuters

Italy is breaching the human rights of gay couples by refusing to recognise same-sex marriage or any adequate legal protection, according to a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The Strasbourg-based court said that the legal protection available to same-sex couples in the country "Did not only fail to provide for the core needs relevant to a couple in a stable committed relationship, but it was also not sufficiently reliable."

The ruling will prove to be controversial in Italy, where the coalition government of centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has pledged to put forward legislation to recognise civil partnerships. A draft legislation that would authorise civil unions is currently stuck in the Senate after passing the lower house of Parliament. The Vatican and Italian conservatives are opposed to a law that would finally allow the recognition of same-sex unions in Italy – the only European country that does not recognise either gay people or same-sex marriage.

The Strasbourg case was brought by three male homosexual couples, who argued that they suffered discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, led by Enrico Oliari, president of the GayLib gay rights group. The court said there was a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which relates to the right to respect private and family life.

A number of Italian municipalities, including Rome, have offered registration of same-sex marriages contracted abroad – but that was dismissed by the court as having "merely symbolic and did not confer any rights on same-sex couples", including inheritance rights.

Same criticism was directed at the so-called "cohabitation agreements" – a sort of 'social contract' that was deemed limited in scope – and failing to provide basic needs such as mutual material support, maintenance obligations and inheritance rights.

The ECHR also detailed a situation of "conflict between the social reality of the applicants, who for the most part lived their relationship openly in Italy, and the law, which gave them no official recognition".

"In the absence of marriage, the option of a civil union or registered partnership would be the most appropriate way for same-sex couples like the applicants to have their relationship legally recognised," it added.

The court ordered Italy to pay €5,000 (£3,500) in damages to each of the claimants, as well as a total of €14,000 in costs.