Unmarried mother must receive widows' bereavement benefits, Supreme Court rules in landmark ruling

Judgement hailed'hugely important'and prompts calls forministers to ditch 'shameful, almost Victorian' legislation which sees children of unmarried parents deprived of bereavement support.

An unmarried mother who was denied bereavement payments after her partner died has won a landmark SupremeCourt caseto access widowed parent's allowance for her bereaved children.

Siobhan McLaughlin, 46, was forced to take on an evening job after being refused the benefit payments because she was not married to her partner, who died of cancer in January 2014.

The ruling has been hailed as "hugely important" by campaigners, who are now calling on ministers to ensure that all children who experience the death of a parent are supported financially on the same basis as children whose parents are married.

Ms McLaughlininitially won a case after claiming unlawful discrimination based on her marital status, but that ruling was later overturned by the Court of Appeal.

She said her case was never about her, but about justice for her grieving children, and accused the government of treating them as “insignificant”.

The special needs classroom assistant, from County Antrim in Northern Ireland, was with her partner John Adams, a groundsman, for 23 years and they had four children, Rebecca, 15, Billy, 16, Lisa, 21, and Stuart, 23. Mr Adams died of cancer in 2014.

Giving the lead judgment on Thursday, 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.”

ButLady Hale said not every case where an unmarried parent is denied the allowance after the death of their partner will be unlawful.

The court also said it is up to the government to decide whether or how to change the law.

Ms McLaughlin's solicitor Laura Banks, from Francis Hanna & Co, said following the judgement: “This is an extremely significant victory, not only for Siobhan and her children, but for thousands of families throughout the UK.

"An estimated 2,000 families each year are turned away from bereavement benefits because of this legislation which the Supreme Court has today clearly stated is unjustifiably discriminatory.

"We are absolutely delighted with this landmark decision and the tremendous impact it should have on the lives of families in times of great need. We consider that it finally puts an end to this shameful, almost Victorian discrimination.

Government falls short of providing enough financial help for bereaved

"We urge the government to act without delay to implement the required changes to the law for the benefit of bereaved families such as Siobhan's.”

If Ms McLaughlin had married Mr Adams she would have been immediately entitled to a £2,000 bereavement payment and up to £118 per week of Widowed Parents Allowance until their youngest child finished school.

Evidence from the experience of benefits advisers submitted to the court by the National Children's Bureau (NCB) and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) revealed that many parents in the UK don’t realise the situation until it’s too late.

It showed that more than half of couples who live together wrongly believe that cohabiting for some time brings them the same legal rights as if they were married.

Following the court ruling, LouisaMcGeehan, director of policy for CPAG, said the judgment "clearly" established that the eligibility criteria for the Widowed Parent’s Allowance was incompatible with the law.

She added: "The government must now move swiftly to apply the principle and ensure that all children who experience the death of a parent are supported financially on the same basis as children whose parents are married."

Alex Rook, specialist public law partner at Irwin Mitchell, said: “This is a hugely important case which will have a major impact on great number of families across the UK."

Speaking outside court after the April hearing in the Supreme Court, which sat in Northern Ireland for the first time, Ms McLaughlin thanked supporters.

Attending with two of her children, she said: “This case was never about me. I would love to be recognised as a widow but I accept in the eyes of the law and the government that I am not.

“What I wasn't prepared to accept was how the government viewed my children - how they could treat my grieving, bereaved children as insignificant.

“I am such a private person but to sit and accept that this is how it is made me say, 'No, this is wrong'.

“I want to look my children in the eye and say it is the government at fault here, not you, and because of this I have tried to rectify this for you.”

A Department for Work and Pensionsspokesman said they would consider the ruling carefully.

”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.”

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