Just Announced - Supreme Court to issue judgment in landmark bereavement benefits case next week

Laura Banks

24 August 2018

 

The UK Supreme Court has announced today that it will promulgate judgment on 30th August 2018 in the landmark case of Siobhan McLaughlin v Department for Communities.

This case centred around Ms McLaughlin’s fight against the Department’s refusal to allow her and her children access to bereavement benefits upon the death of her partner simply because she was not married to him.

Her case has shone a light on the difference still predominant in the UK and NI between the rights of married and unmarried couples.

Siobhan McLaughlin lived with her partner John Adams for over 23 years until his death on 28th January 2014.  Their four children were aged 19, 17, 13 and 11 years at the date of his death.

After Mr Adams’ death, Ms McLaughlin was devastated to discover that her children would lose out on tens of thousands of pounds in benefits, as the couple were not married.

The family lost out on a £2,000 lump sum bereavement payment as well as a weekly payment of Widowed Parent’s Allowance, which could be up to £118.00 per week depending on the contributions made by the deceased, paid until the youngest child leaves school.

Ms McLaughlin felt this was particularly unfair given that throughout their lives, the couple had been treated as such by the Social Security Agency with marriage not being a relevant factor prior to his death, in respect of any other benefits.  Indeed, the restriction appears to breach the government’s own family test.

Ms McLaughlin brought her case to the High Court in Belfast where she won her case. In his judgment, Mr Justice Treacy stated “The complete exclusion of the Applicant on the grounds of her marital status from a benefit whose purpose is to alleviate the financial burden on a family resulting from the death of a parent cannot be justified”.

He held that the restriction violated Article 8 of the European Convention in so far as it “injustifiably discriminates against the applicant on grounds of her marital status”.

The case was then appealed by the Department for Communities and their appeal was upheld.   The Court of Appeal found that, whilst the benefit is child-related, it is not paid to the children and therefore the restriction does not discriminate against them.

Ms McLaughlin then brought the matter to the Highest Court in the land, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, with the help of Citizens Advice, Francis Hanna & Co Solicitors and Counsel Laura McMahon BL and Frank O’Donaghue QC.  The Supreme Court heard the case on 30th April 2018 in its historic first sitting in Belfast.

Judgment is due to be handed down next Thursday 30th August 2018

Laura Banks, Francis Hanna Solicitors said “We await this judgment with keen interest. This is a landmark case which centres on the rights of children to access much needed benefits at a time of bereavement, free from discrimination on grounds of their parent’s marital status. The judgment is extremely significant and if successful, could impact thousands of families throughout Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. We say that is not only unfair but it is also unlawful that children of unmarried parents should be forced in to poverty at a time of bereavement and we hope that the Supreme Court agrees.”