A bereaved mother’s legal battle to secure rights that are being denied to unmarried couples has begun in the Supreme Court.
Siobhan McLaughlin is fighting to ensure parents who are not married get the same bereavement benefits as those who are married after her long-term partner died in 2014.
She has four children - Stuart, 23, Rebecca, 15, Billy, 16 and Lisa, 21 - with John Adams, who died at the age of 60.
The couple were together for 23 years but never married.
Their status meant that when Adams died of cancer, McLaughlin, 46, was unable to claim the lump sum bereavement payment of £2,000, in addition to a weekly benefit known as the widowed parent’s allowance (WPA).
If a couple are married or in a civil partnership when one partner dies, they can claim both benefits. But if they were living together without being married, they are not eligible for either.
Campaigners and lawyers have slammed the “unjust” way cohabiting parents are treated compared to those who are married.
According to the Office of National Statistics, there were 3.3 million cohabiting families in the UK in 2017. In 1996, there were fewer than half this number, with 1.5 million families.
McLaughlin said ahead of the hearing: “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.”
The Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN) estimates that about 21% more parents would be eligible for bereavement benefits if the rules were extended to include cohabiting couples who had dependent children together.
Alison Penny, coordinator at the CBN, said that every year more than 2,000 families in the UK face the “double hit” of one parent dying and their partner realising that their children are not eligible for bereavement benefits.
She said: “With cohabiting couples the fastest growing family type in the UK, the problem is only going to get worse.
“On average, a cohabiting parent earning £10,000 a year loses out by over £15,000 over the children’s childhood if their partner dies.”
According to the CBN, for parents earning about £10,000 a year the widowed parent’s allowance is worth about £48 a week - meaning that cohabiting couples stand to lose out by £2,400 a year.
For a parent earning about £20,000 a year, the allowance is worth about £90 a week - meaning that £4,680 a year could be lost for cohabiting couples.
“Bereaved children have the same needs for food, shelter, love and attention, regardless of their parents’ marital status,” Penny added.
In January 2016, the Belfast High Court ruled that McLaughlin should be able to claim benefits on behalf of her children, but this was overturned in December 2016 in the Appeal Court.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is challenging the government on the grounds that bereaved children should be entitled to the benefit payment irrespective of whether their parents are married or not.
Carla Clarke, solicitor at CPAG, said: “As a society we believe in fairness and equal support for all children. But the children of cohabiting parents are having to forego support at a time of acute need when a mother or father has died.
“That is an injustice and an anomaly that should change. This case is an opportunity to ensure we give all grieving children basic protections following their loss and ensure that their own rights are upheld.”
A judgement is not expected to be given in the case today.