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31 AUG 2018

Supreme Court rules in favour of unmarried mother in benefits case

Supreme Court rules in favour of unmarried mother in benefits case

The UK’s Supreme Court has ruled in favour of Siobhan McLaughlin, an unmarried mother of four from County Antrim, gaining access to Widowed Parent’s Allowance following her partner’s death in 2014.

The court ruled that section 39A of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992, which states that a widowed parent can only claim the allowance if they are married to or the civil partner of the deceased, is incompatible with Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights. 

Simon Burge, Partner at Blake Morgan, commented “Today’s Supreme Court decision is a big step in the right direction to reform the rights of cohabitees and ‘common-law’ spouses.

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“Prior to 6th April 2017, Widowed Parent's Allowance and Bereavement Allowance were only payable to a spouse or civil partner of the person who had died. For deaths occurring after 6th April 2017, a Bereavement Support Payment can be claimed and this can be worth up to £10,000, but it had been thought that the same rules applied – namely that you had to have been married to or in a civil partnership with the person who had died. This still discriminated against those in committed long-term relationships who for a variety of reasons haven't formally tied the knot – and who may mistakenly believe they acquire the rights of a common-law spouse with time.

“So for the many other unmarried couples in the UK and their children, this morning’s landmark ruling by Britain’s highest court sets an encouraging precedent. Now the net has been widened it means that potentially thousands more bereaved people will be able to claim this support, thereby relieving a little of the financial strain that so often comes with the unexpected death of a loved one.

“However, the Supreme Court has justified its decision today by drawing a distinction between widowed parents on the one hand and other bereaved claimants on the other. The logic behind the ruling is that the benefit should be payable in circumstances where there is a dependent child or children and it doesn't – or shouldn't – matter whether the parents were married / in a civil partnership or not. In addition, the decision of the Supreme Court only applies to the old Widowed Parent's Allowance which has now been phased out. It remains to be seen how the ruling will affect the way in which people claiming the new Bereavement Support Payments are treated in future because these payments can be claimed not just by parents but by anyone whose spouse or civil partner paid National Insurance contributions for at least 25 weeks or who died because of an accident at work or a disease caused by work.”