Case will decide whether unmarried, cohabiting parents with children should be granted access to bereavement benefits when their partners die.
- Supreme Court will sit in Belfast on Monday 30 April 2018 to hear the case.
- Two national children’s charities intervening.
- Read the Childhood Bereavement Network briefing here.
The case relates to County Antrim mother-of-four Siobhan McLaughlin. When her partner John died after 23 years together, she was not eligible for Widowed Parent’s Allowance to help her raise their children, because she and John had not married.
The Childhood Bereavement Network, part of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) have submitted evidence and important legal arguments to the court, including anecdotal evidence from benefits advisers that many parents don’t realise the situation until it’s too late.
Alison Penny of the Childhood Bereavement Network said:
“Parents make the same National Insurance contributions whether they are married or cohabiting. But if one of them dies, their contributions only entitle their partner and children to bereavement support if the couple were married. We estimate that every year, over 2,000 families like Siobhan’s face the double hit of one parent dying, and the other parent realising that they and the children aren’t eligible for bereavement benefits. And with cohabiting couples the fastest growing family type in the UK, the problem is only going to get worse. On average, a cohabiting parent earning £10,000 a year loses out by over £15,000 over the children’s childhood if their partner dies.
“Married parents can use the Widowed Parent’s Allowance to prioritise their grieving children’s needs, but cohabiting parents don’t get that help. In life, parents have the same responsibilities to their children whether they are married or cohabiting – why should it be different in death? Bereaved children have the same needs for food, shelter, love and attention, regardless of their parents’ marital status – it’s unjust to discriminate against them on these grounds. In many other countries, children qualify for bereavement benefits themselves, so their parents’ marital status doesn’t make a difference.”
Anecdotal evidence from benefits advisers submitted by NCB reveals that many parents in the UK don’t realise the situation until it’s too late. More than a quarter of deaths are sudden and even when a parent is expected to die, they may be too ill to get married. Over half of couples who live together wrongly believe that cohabiting for some time brings them the same legal rights as if they were married. This lack of awareness is partly because the means-tested benefits and tax credit systems treat couples as one unit whether they are married or not. These inconsistencies help keep the myth of common-law marriage alive.
Alison Penny said:
“Two years ago the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee recommended that bereavement benefits be extended to support cohabiting couples with dependent children, but the government maintains that to prove cohabitation would be a ‘complex lengthy process’. But if they can do it for tax credits and means-tested benefits, why not for bereavement benefits? With widowed parents and campaigning organisations across the UK, we’ve been campaigning to right this wrong, and make sure that grieving children don’t lose out because of their parents’ marital status.”
CPAG’s solicitor Carla Clarke said:
“As a society we believe in fairness and equal support for all children. But the children of co-habiting parents are having to forego support at a time of acute need when a mother or father has died. That is an injustice and an anomaly that should change. This case is an opportunity to ensure we give all grieving children basic protections following their loss and ensure that their own rights are upheld.”
CPAG’s legal submissions to the Supreme Court focus on how the interests and rights of children bear on the case in respect of a benefit which, although paid to the parent, is intended to support the welfare of the bereaved children. The needs of those children are the same irrespective of the marital status of their parents. As such, CPAG submits, the eligibility criteria for WPA is discriminatory and cannot be justified given that it conflicts with certain of the UK’s international human rights obligations.
NCB has been able to intervene after receiving pro bono support from specialist public lawyers at national law firm Irwin Mitchell and human rights barrister Stephen Broach from Monckton Chambers. Similarly, CPAG has been able to intervene due to the pro-bono assistance of Herbert Smith Freehills together with pro-bono representation provided by Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers and Tom Royston of Garden Court North.
About bereavement benefits
Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA) was abolished for new claimants on 6 April 2017 and replaced with Bereavement Support Payment (BSP). The ineligibility rules for parents who were cohabiting with their partner remain the same under BSP as they were under WPA.
About the Childhood Bereavement Network
The Childhood Bereavement Network, based at the National Children’s Bureau, is the coordinating hub for services across the UK that offer direct support to children and young people who have been bereaved of a parent or sibling. Since 2011, the Network has coordinated a group of charities and other bodies interested in bereavement benefits, and is part of the Life Matters taskforce. For more information visit www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk
About Child Poverty Action Group
CPAG is the leading charity campaigning for the abolition of child poverty in the UK and for a better deal for low-income families and children. Through its Early Warning System it collects and analyses case evidence about how welfare changes are affecting the wellbeing of children, their families and the communities and services that support them. Through its strategic litigation work, CPAG brings or intervenes in cases where benefit claimants’ rights are violated with a view to bringing about systemic change for others who find themselves in the same situation. CPAG is the host organisation for the Campaign to End Child Poverty coalition, which has members from across civil society including children’s charities, faith groups, unions and other civic sector organisations.
About Irwin Mitchell
Irwin Mitchell is over 100 years old and is one of the largest law firms in the UK.
Last year Irwin Mitchell merged with Thomas Eggar LLP expanding its presence in London and the South East and has also acquired specialist Personal Injury firm MPH Solicitors and private wealth firm Berkeley Law in the past few years.
The firm is ranked as a market-leading personal legal services firm in the independent Legal 500 and Chambers UK guides to UK law with over 100 lawyers personally recommended. Irwin Mitchell Scotland LLP is a separate Scottish legal practice regulated by the Law Society of Scotland and has an office in Glasgow.
For more information visit www.irwinmitchell.com.
 Barlow, A., Burgoyne, C., Clery, E., & Smithson, J. (2008). Cohabitation and the law: myths, money and the media. In A. Park, J. Curtice, K. Thomson, M. Phillips, Mark C. Johnson, & E. Clery (Eds.), British Social Attitudes : The 24th Report. (2007/2008, pp. 29-53). London, England: SAGE Publications Ltd.