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Man secures equal pension rights for husband in Supreme Court

Date:12 JUL 2017
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The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of John Walker in his landmark legal battle to secure equal pension benefits for his husband, a decision which could end the financial penalisation of thousands of same-sex couples in civil partnerships and civil marriages.

Mr Walker’s legal bid challenged an exemption in the Equality Act that allows employers to exclude same-sex partners from spousal benefits paid into a pension fund before December 2005 (when the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force). Mr Walker argued the exemption was discriminatory because it did not apply to opposite-sex couples.

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Mr Walker retired from chemicals group Innospec in 2003, having worked for the company for more than 20 years. During his employment there, he made the same contributions to the pension scheme as his heterosexual colleagues. Mr Walker and his husband have been together for 24 years. They entered into a civil partnership in January 2006. This was later converted into a marriage. This judgment will ensure that should Mr Walker die first, his husband will have access to an income of approximately £45,000 a year for life, in contrast to the £1,000 a year he would receive under current law.

Delivering the unanimous judgment in Walker v Innospec Ltd & Ors [2017] UKSC 47, Lord Kerr said:

‘The salary paid to Mr Walker throughout his working life was precisely the same as that which would have been paid to a heterosexual man. There was no reason for the company to anticipate that it would not become liable to pay a survivor’s pension to his lawful spouse.’

The decision was based on an EU framework directive from 2000 guaranteeing gender equality under employment law.

Mr Walker’s lawyer, Emma Norton of Liberty, said:

‘We are delighted the Supreme Court recognised this pernicious little provision for what it was – discrimination against gay people, pure and simple.

But this ruling was made under EU law and is a direct consequence of the rights protection the EU gives us. We now risk losing that protection. The government must promise that there will be no rollback on LGBT rights after Brexit – and commit to fully protecting them in UK law.’

Max Orbach, associate solicitor in Russell-Cooke's trust and estate disputes team, says:

‘The Supreme Court’s decision today is a welcome and timely clarification of the law that has the potential to change dramatically the lives of many same-sex couples. It ensures that those in a same-sex marriage will now receive the equivalent rights in regards to their deceased partner’s pension as a husband and wife would receive. In this case, it meant the difference between receiving a spousal pension of £45,000 per year rather than just £1,000.

This decision helps bring the law up to date in the area of same-sex marriages. However, on the death of a loved one, the position regarding entitlement to their pension is far from straight forward and will inevitably depend on the specific terms of their pension. I would strongly advise that people seek independent legal advice in these circumstances. The differences in entitlement can be life changing, as this case has demonstrated.’