A European court ruled Tuesday that Italy breached the human rights of three gay couples by refusing them marriage or any other recognised form of union.
"The legal protection currently available to same-sex couples in Italy ... 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 European Court of Human Rights said in its judgement.
Italy is alone among major western European states in having no provisions for the official recognition of homosexual couples.
Draft legislation that would authorise civil unions for them is currently blocked in the Senate.
The three couples argued that they suffered discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
They said this was a breach of Article 8 -- the right to respect for private and family life -- of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court agreed, and ordered Italy to pay 5,000 euros ($5,400) in damages to each of the claimants, as well as a total of 14,000 euros in costs.
Italy offers same-sex civil unions in a small number of municipalities but these do not provide any specific benefits, such as inheritance rights.
"There was a 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," said the court.
"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.
Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Rome last month against the proposed law legalising civil unions.
But recent opinion polls have shown a significant swing in favour of reform, following a pattern seen in Ireland, like Italy a strongly Catholic country, which overwhelmingly voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriages in May.