06:17, August 30 53 0 theguardian.com

2018-08-30 06:17:06
Denying unmarried mother widow's allowance ruled illegal

Denying the mother of four children a widowed parent’s allowance is illegal, the supreme court has ruled, in a decision which significantly extends the rights of unmarried couples.

By a majority of four to one, the court’s justices declared that the government’s refusal to pay up to £117 a week in benefits breached the family’s human rights. It will put pressure on ministers to consider making urgent changes to the law.

The judgment follows a hearing earlier this year in Belfast where the court was told that withholding the allowance from Siobhan McLaughlin amounted to discrimination against all children born out of wedlock.

The special needs classroom assistant from Armoy in County Antrim has four children: Rebecca, 15, Billy, 16, Lisa, 21, and Stuart, 23. Her partner, John Adams, a former groundsman, died from cancer in January 2014. She was refused a bereavement payment and widowed parent’s allowance because they were neither married nor in a civil partnership.

The ruling comes at a time when the rights of unmarried couples are rising up the political agenda. In 1996 there were 1.5 million cohabiting families in the UK; by 2017, the figure had risen to 3.3 million. Many mistakenly believe they have the same legal and financial rights and protections as married partners.

Although the ruling is on a Northern Ireland case, the decision will affect the rest of the UK.

Delivering the majority decision, Lady Hale said: “It is difficult to indeed to see the justification for denying people and their children benefits, or paying them at a lower rate of benefit, simply because the adults are not married to one another. Their needs, and more importantly their children’s needs, are the same.

“Is it a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of privileging marriage to deny Ms McLaughlin and her children the benefit of Mr Adams’ contributions because they were not married to one another? In my view, the answer is manifestly ‘no’, at least on the facts of this case.

“The allowance exists because of the responsibilities of the deceased and the survivor towards their children. Those responsibilities are the same whether or not they are married to or in a civil partnership with one another.”

That view was consistent, Hale added, with the UK’s obligations under article three of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child which states that “in all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”.

A “great majority of member states” within the Council of Europe provide survivor’s pensions directly to the children irrespective of whether their parents were married or not, the judgment also notes.

In another section of the ruling, Lord Mance said that an earlier judgment in 2000 by the European court of human rights, in the case of Shackell v the UK which denied a widow her benefits, had failed to address the interests of any children in a partnership.

Before the hearing in Belfast, McLaughlin, 46, who had to supplement her income by taking on additional evening cleaning work, said: “It is heartbreaking to even contemplate the difference this could have made. It might just have made life slightly easier. It might have meant that I could have been at home every night to prepare the supper as I had been when John was here.

“But because I had to go back to work, I am no longer there, so not only did they lose their dad they also lost me and that stability. But I have to provide for them, to pay the rent for the house and you have to go on and that’s hard.”



Commenting on the case ahead of the ruling, Jo Edwards, partner and head of family at the London firm Forsters LLP, said: “Siobhan McLaughlin’s case once again brings into sharp focus the different treatment of unmarried couples, compared to their married counterparts, when their relationship ends through separation or death.

“This is the third high-profile case in the past year in which the treatment of unmarried couples on the death of one has been tested, and in the last two – Denise Brewster and Jakki Smith – the existing position was found to be discriminatory and contrary to the parties’ human rights. In Siobhan McLaughlin’s case, the fact that she is not entitled to bereavement benefits has left her four children in poverty because of the different treatment by the state of their parents’ relationship than if they had married. In a civilised society, that cannot be right.”

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