Landmark decision by Supreme Court

Supreme Court says unmarried “widow” Siobhan McLaughlin should get bereavement payments

In a landmark decision that could indicate a shift in the law relating to couples who live together but not do not marry the Supreme Court recently overturned an earlier decision of the Court of Appeal and held that Ms McLaughlin was entitled to receive Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA), even though she had never married her long term partner John Adams who had passed away in January 2014.

Ms McLaughlin and Mr Adams had lived together for 23 years and had 4 children together who were aged 19, 17, 13 and 11 years when their father died. Mr Adams had made sufficient national insurance contributions for Ms McLaughlin to be able to claim WPA if she had been married to him. However, her claims were refused and she applied to the court for judicial review of that decision on the ground that this was incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

By a majority of 4 to 1 the Supreme Court In the matter of an application by Siobhan McLaughlin for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland) [2018] UKSC 48 agreed with her and made a declaration of incompatibility. The court said that “the relevant facet of the relationship is not the public commitment [of marriage] but the c-raising of children [26]. The purpose of WPA is to benefit the children. It makes no difference to the children whether or not the couple were married to one another, but their treatment is very different [27]”.

The decision does not change the law but the declaration puts pressure on the Government to act and if they do not it could be the basis for Ms McLaughlin to make a claim under the Human Rights Act 1998. WPA and other bereavement benefits were replaced by Bereavement Support Payment in 2017 but are still possible to claim if the deceased partner passed away before 6 April 2017 and the new style payments include an additional element if there are dependant children so the Supreme Court decision could benefit many thousands of families.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that there were 3.29 million cohabiting families in the UK in 2017 and cohabitation is the fastest growing family type.

Posted on: 05/09/2018

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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