A High Court of Justice in Belfast has ruled that the regulations denying the payment of bereavement benefits to an unmarried mother whose partner had died discriminated against her on the grounds of her marital status. And, in refusing her a Widowed Parent’s Allowance, they also breached her human rights.
The landmark ruling sets a precedent that could see bereaved cohabiting parents across the UK receiving extra benefits.
Whilst the ruling applies to the devolved Northern Ireland social security system, it is understood that if the Department for Social Security in Northern Ireland does not appeal or is unsuccessful in the appeal, convention would enable similar challenges in the rest of the UK.
2,000 families face double hit of parent dying
The Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that over 2,000 families face the double hit of one parent dying, and the other parent realising that they and the children aren’t eligible for bereavement benefits.
If they had been married or in a civil partnership with their partner who died, they would claim Bereavement Payment and Widowed Parent’s Allowance, but if they were living together without being married they aren’t eligible. That’s the case even if they had been living with each other for many years and had children together.
The higher rate of bereavement benefit currently paid to those with children is in recognition of the costs (emotional, practical and financial) of bringing up children when a partner has died. Many couples don’t realise they wouldn’t be eligible. More than half (53%) of people cohabiting with a partner wrongly believe that living together for some time brings them the same legal rights as if they were married – the stubborn myth of the common law marriage.
The Department of Work and Pension plans to introduce a new, simplified Bereavement Support System in 2017.
‘Massive implications for families and for children’
Pól Callaghan from the Citizens Advice bureau who supported Ms McLaughlin's case said the ruling was "ground breaking" and its implications would be felt across the UK.
He said it was the first time a partner in a relationship had received benefits that would previously have been reserved for a married spouse.
"Siobhan stood up and said it was not fair that her children were being discriminated against on the basis of a decision that she and her partner had taken," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster. "This is a case where the judge here has pushed the boundaries of the law for a family. This could have massive implications for families and for children. This landmark ruling will benefit children, not just in Northern Ireland, but across the UK."
If you have been bereaved, our website has Bereavement Payments information and Bereavement Allowance information you might find useful. There is also a Your situation: Bereaved information section.
You can also use our Benefits Calculator to check your entitlement to welfare benefits and our Grants Search to see if you are eligible for help from a charitable fund, based on your personal background, circumstances and needs.
If you need advice, you can use our Find an Adviser tool to search for advisers in your local area.
Source: The Belfast Telegraph: Unmarried mum in landmark legal win to access Widowed Parent's Allowance