An unmarried mother-of-four has won a Supreme Court fight to access the widowed parent’s allowance.
Siobhan McLaughlin’s partner of 23 years, John Adams, died from cancer in January 2014, but she was denied the allowance because they were not married or in a civil partnership.
She initially won a case after claiming unlawful discrimination based on her marital status, but that ruling was later overturned by the Court of Appeal.
McLaughlin, from County Antrim in Northern Ireland challenged that decision at the UK’s highest court, who ruled on Thursday that she should be able to access the payment in a landmark ruling.
By a majority of four to one, Supreme Court justices said the current law on the allowance is incompatible with Human Rights legislation.
Giving the lead judgment, the court’s president, Lady Hale, said: “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.
“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 or in a civil partnership with one another.”
However, Lady Hale said not every case where an unmarried parent is denied the allowance after the death of their partner will be unlawful.
It will “not always amount to unjustified discrimination, but it will inevitably do so in a legally significant number of cases, which is sufficient to require the court to make a declaration of incompatibility under the Human Rights Act 1998”, the decision reads.
The court said it is up to the Government to decide whether or how to change the law.
Following the decision, a Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said the court’s ruling will be “carefully” considered.
“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.”
Following Adams’ death, McLaughlin, who works as a special needs classroom assistant, had to take on an evening job to help pay the bills after being refused the widowed parent’s allowance by the Northern Ireland Department for Communities.
She has previously said that the case was not about her, but rather about justice for her four grieving children – Rebecca, 15, Billy, 16, Lisa, 21, and Stuart, 23 – and accused the government of treating them as “insignificant”, Sky News reported.
Speaking after the ruling on Thursday, 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 would like to take this opportunity to thank an amazing team, to Denise Forde from the Citizens Advice Bureau, Laura McMahon and with special thanks to Laura Banks at Francis Hanna & Co Solicitors.
“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 NI and throughout the UK.”
Alison Penny, director of the Childhood Bereavement Network, said an estimated 2,000 families a year are in McLaughlin’s situation, with one parent dying and the other realising they are not eligible for bereavement benefits.
“We call on Parliament to see the way the wind is blowing and to apply this principle as soon as possible to the new benefit,” she said.
“Otherwise, another bereaved family like Siobhan’s will have to bring a test case, putting themselves through the gruelling emotional and practical challenges of coming to court.
“Each day that Parliament delays, another five grieving parents and their children will fall foul of this injustice.”