Siobhan McLaughlin, took her claim to the Supreme Court after being refused widowed parents allowance because she was unmarried, and so she was not a widow. Her partner died in 2014. Together they had 4 children. She was refused the allowance by the Northern Ireland Department for Communities. Had they been married she would have been immediately entitled to a £2,000 bereavement payment and up to £118 per week of widowed parent’s allowance until their youngest child finished school
She took on evening job to support her family and initially won her case after claiming unlawful discrimination based on her marital status, but that ruling was later overturned by the Court of Appeal. She pursued her action through the Supreme Court and won. It was found that the essential element in the current law on the allowance is “incompatible” with human rights legislation.
One of the Judges stated “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 you are married or in a civil partnership with one another”.
No doubt the ruling will have tremendous impact and provoke much debate on both sides. Potentially it will provide much needed financial relief during what is a period of great distress and upset. If it means the surviving parent does not need to work and can support her grieving children, that can only be for the good of the children. However, it is worth noting that the Judge also stated that not every case where an unmarried parent is denied the allowance after the death of their partner will be unlawful and it is for the government to decide whether or how to change the law.
Evidence from the experience of benefits advisers submitted to the court by the National Children’s Bureau and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) revealed that many parents in the UK don’t become aware of the situation until it’s too late. 50% of couples who live together wrongly believe that cohabiting for some time brings them the same legal rights as married couples.
Louisa McGeehan, policy director for CPAG, says the ruling “clearly” establishs the eligibility criteria for the widowed parent’s allowance. In short it is incompatible with the law. In essence all children who experience the death of a parent should be supported on the same basis as children whose parents are married. No doubt CRAG will be eager to see what action the DWP and the government will take.
“Unmarried mum” is the completely wrong terminology. The mother in this instance since she’s been in a stable family relationship with her partner and children for 23 years.
Does the judgment open a Pandora ’s Box to abuse by lower-income couples. No doubt this will be an accusation but the focus should be on the needs of the children. Ms McLaughlin was clearly seeking benefits for her children, not herself. She was not seeking widow’s benefit. The Supreme Court ruling was about the children’s rights, not hers.
Siobhan McLaughlin and John Adams seem to have been in a stable, cohabiting relationship. For over 24 years and to have jointly parented their four children. There are many people in similar situations who are unaware that common-law marriage is folklore, not legal fact.
For many years, family lawyers have been very concerned about the lack of rights afforded to cohabiting couples. Our society has changed dramatically over the last few decades. It is now normal for most couples to live together, some of them choosing never to marry. However, they are as committed to the relationship as are married. In recent years, we have seen a lot of more litigation between cohabiting couples who have separated. Their journey towards litigation is not easy as there is not one bit of legislation that is a “catch all” to deal with all aspects of the separation. It can be a minefield and at the moment, it can still produce a very unfair outcome.
Ehat if the government has no appetite for new legislation? It will be up to the Courts to try and interpret the law in a particular way. However, the Courts’ discretion is limited and ultimately, change has to come form the government introducing new legislation.
If you are cohabiting, you should consider making a Will and Lasting Powers of Attorney. This will go some way to ensuring that you are protecting your partner and your children. If you would like to discuss this, please contact Eilish Adams at The Law House on 020 3150 2525.