The NI Court of Appeal has overturned a ruling made by the High Court that the Department for Social Development (DSD) had acted unlawfully when it refused to pay bereavement benefits to a mother on the ground that she was not married to her partner at the date of his death.
Siobhan McLaughlin lived with her partner John Adams for over 23 years until his death on 28th January 2014. Ms McLaughlin and Mr Adams were unmarried and had four children together who were aged 19, 17, 13 and 11 years at the date of his death.
Upon her partner’s death, Ms McLaughlin claimed Bereavement Payment and Widowed Parent’s Allowance, but was refused both benefits by the DSD because she was neither married to nor a civil partner of Mr Adams at the date of his death.
Ms McLaughlin issued Judicial Review proceedings on the grounds that the DSD unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of marital status and this was contrary to the Human Rights Act 1998. She also claimed that the DSD decision had failed to have regard for her private or family life.
The High Court in its judgment ruled that the refusal to pay Ms McLaughlin Widowed Parent’s Allowance was a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights as the decision discriminated against her on the grounds of marital status. The Judge ruled that refusal of the Widowed Parent’s Allowance was not justified because the responsibilities for the children are the same irrespective of marriage, civil partnership or cohabitation.
The DSD appealed this decision to the NI Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal then considered extensive domestic and European case-law and decided that the State had “adopted a position on marital status and bereavement benefits that the courts have endorsed and Parliament has reaffirmed” and it was “not for the courts to determine the policy in this area”.
The Court of Appeal was satisfied that the relationship of an unmarried cohabitee was not equivalent with that of a spouse or civil partner in the context of a Widowed Parent’s Allowance and that there was no violation of Human Rights. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal allowed the DSD’s appeal, and Ms McLaughlin’s application for Judicial Review was dismissed.
The case is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court by Ms McLaughlin with a hearing date scheduled for April 2018.