Northern Ireland

Bereaved unmarried mother loses benefits test case

Purse with cash
Image caption The case was taken by Siobhan McLaughlin, an unmarried mother from County Antrim, who was left as the sole provider for her four children after the death of their father

A "groundbreaking" ruling which gave an unmarried mother entitlement to a widowed parent's allowance after her partner's death has been overturned.

Siobhan McLaughlin, from County Antrim, lived with her partner for 23 years and they had four children together, but the couple were never husband and wife.

After he died in 2014, she challenged the rule that parents must have married to get the widowed parent's allowance.

She won her original case but it has been overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Sole provider

Senior judges did not accept the argument that Ms McLaughlin had been discriminated against on the grounds of her marital status.

Lord Justice Weatherup said: "The relationship of an unmarried co-habitee is not analogous with that of a spouse or civil partner in the context of a widowed parent's allowance."

Ms McLaughlin is now the sole provider for the couple's four children, but she was refused the benefit because she was neither married nor in a civil partnership at the time of her partner's death in January 2014.

She brought a test case against Stormont's former Department for Social Development (DSD) which oversaw the distribution of social welfare payments.

Earlier this year, the original High Court ruling was hailed as a landmark verdict which could have set a precedent for bereaved co-habiting parents across the UK.

If the verdict had stood, it could have paved the way for other unmarried parents to receive extra payments after their partners' deaths, a change which would have cost the government an extra £21m per year.

'Financial hardship'

Ms McLaughlin's barristers argued that she was being unlawfully discriminated against due to her marital situation.

They also contended that it breached her private and family life entitlements under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In February a High Court judge ruled that the benefit should be applied equally to people in Ms McLaughlin's position as to married widows with children, as its purpose was to diminish the financial hardship on families following the death of a parent.

In his judgment, the restriction amounted to a human rights violation by unjustifiably discriminating against Ms McLaughlin on the grounds of her marital status

At the Court of Appeal hearing, lawyers for the DSD argued that the judge had wrongly decided the relationship of an unwed co-habitee was comparable to those married or in a civil partnership in considering the allowance.

The court heard how extending the benefit to surviving, unmarried parents - with an estimated cost of £21.6m per year - was rejected by the British government back in June.

'Justified'

The three senior judges ruled that the government had adopted a position on marital status and bereavement benefits that had been endorsed and reaffirmed by the courts and Parliament.

"In the present context it is for this court to determine if the government's assessment is manifestly without reasonable foundation," Lord Justice Weatherup said.

"We are unable to reach that conclusion."

He added: "The different treatment of co-habitees in that context is justified."

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