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Court deems unmarried woman eligible for widow's benefit

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Alice Sanderson, September 04, 2018

A recent ruling from the Supreme Court could pave the way for unmarried partners to claim benefits when widowed - something previously only offered to those who were married.

This week’s ruling was for mother of four, Siobhan McLaughlin, who lost her partner John Adams in 2014. They were unmarried but had lived together for 23 years before his death.

Had she been married, she would have been entitled to claim a Widows Parent’s Allowance (WPA), which is currently a maximum of £113.70 per week.  But, despite being left the sole provider for the household, Ms McLaughlin was denied this money to help her children, because she wasn’t married to Mr Adams. She was forced to take an extra job in the evening to be able to support them.

Incompatible with human rights law

Ms McLaughlin had already won her case, claiming unlawful discrimination based on her marital status, but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

However, by a majority of four justices to one, the Supreme Court ruled that the current law for the allowance is ‘incompatible’ with human rights law.

The Court’s president, Lady Hale, gave the lead judgement and said: "The purpose of the allowance is to diminish the financial loss caused to families with children by the death of a parent. That loss is the same whether or not the parents are married."

However, she did add that this judgement does not necessarily mean that all cases where unmarried parents are denied the allowance are unlawful, and it will be judged on a case by case basis.

The Supreme Court cannot change the law, but they can pressure the UK’s legislatures to ensure they are human rights compliant and encourage them to change the law where necessary.

Rights of bereaved children

In an earlier statement Ms McLaughlin said: "For me, this case was always about the rights of bereaved children. I am so delighted that the Supreme Court shared our view that the law as it stands has discriminated against my children.

"I hope that my taking and succeeding with this challenge gives others both confidence and courage to continue to challenge the unfairness and inequalities in our laws in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK."

DWP response

In response, the Department of Work and Pensions said they would ‘carefully’ consider the court’s ruling.

A spokesperson for the DWP said: "We will consider the court's ruling carefully. Widowed parent's allowance was a contributory benefit and it has always been the case that inheritable benefits derived from another person's contributions should be based on the concept of legal marriage or civil partnership.

"This ruling doesn't change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits, which are paid only to people who are married or in a civil partnership."