Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin wins Supreme Court benefit case

Media caption,
Siobhan McLaughlin says her case was "always about the rights of bereaved children"

An unmarried mother has won a landmark court case over which could allow her to claim a Widowed Parent's Allowance.

Mother-of-four Siobhan McLaughlin, from County Antrim, lived with her partner for 23 years but never married, which meant she was not able to claim the benefit when he died.

The UK's Supreme Court ruled this was incompatible with human rights law.

The ruling puts pressure on ministers to change the rules, potentially benefiting thousands of families.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Ms McLaughlin (centre) with her children Billy and Rebecca Adams

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said it would consider the court's ruling carefully but said the ruling did not change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits, which are paid only to people who are married or in a civil partnership.

The Supreme Court cannot change the law but it puts pressure on the UK's legislatures to change the law and ensure that it is human rights compliant.

Ms McLaughlin, 46, lived with her partner John Adams, who died in 2014, and they had four children together.

She is now the sole provider for her family and works two jobs as a special needs classroom assistant and cleaner.

Image caption,
Siobhan McLaughlin (centre) reacts to the judgment on Thursday

Ms McLaughlin said the money provided by the WPA would have been useful to her family.

Reacting to the news on Thursday, Ms McLaughlin described the judgment as "just surreal".

"It is just fantastic for all those children that have been recognised now," she said.

"It wasn't ever about me, it was always to do with the parent's allowance part of it."

When asked what it meant for people "in her position", Ms McLaughlin replied: "Hopefully they will recognise that they are just as worthy as children born into wedlock."

Image caption,
John Adams had four children with Siobhan McLaughlin

Laura Banks, Ms McLaughlin's solicitor, told the BBC that the decision will benefit "thousands of children throughout the UK".

"What Siobhan has said from day one is that it's unfair and it's wrong that her children should be treated any different than children whose parents are married," Ms Banks said.

"The Supreme Court have upheld that - it has actually said that not only is it unfair but it's unlawful."

She said the government will now be asked to act quickly "so as many people can benefit from this as possible".

Media caption,
Thousands of children will benefit from the ruling, says Ms McLaughlin's solicitor Laura Banks

Double blow

The Child Bereavement Network estimated that every year, more than 2,000 families face the "double hit of one parent dying, and the other parent realising that they and the children aren't eligible for bereavement benefits".

To be eligible for Widowed Parent's Allowance under the current law:

  • You must be eligible for child benefit
  • The deceased partner must have made sufficient National Insurance contributions
  • You must have been married or been in a civil partnership

Alison Penny, director of the Childhood Bereavement Network, said the organisation was "delighted" with the judgement.

"We pay tribute to Siobhan for having the courage to bring this test case and improve the situation for thousands of grieving children and their surviving parents", Ms Penny said, in a joint statement issued by the Network, the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Children's Bureau.

"While she brought her case in Northern Ireland, it has implications for the rest of the UK where the wording of the eligibility criteria is the same."

Analysis: Court decision has significant implications

BBC News Legal Correspondent, Clive Coleman

The WPA can only be claimed by a surviving partner if that partner was either married to, or in a civil partnership with the deceased.

The question at the heart of this case was whether that restriction unjustifiably discriminates against the surviving partner and/or their children, and breaches their human rights.

The Supreme Court has decided that it does, and that has significant implications. There are some 3.3 million co-habiting couples in the UK. Around 1.2 million of them have children.

Image source, PAcemaker
Image caption,
Siobhan McLaughlin expressed relief after the Supreme Court judgement

The purpose of the WPA is to help the children.

Thursday's ruling will benefit those families where one co-habiting parent has died and the WPA has been refused, or where a parent dies in future and the surviving partner makes a claim.

The Supreme Court cannot change the law but by saying that it is incompatible with the Human Rights Act, it is putting pressure on the UK's legislatures to change the law and ensure that it is human rights compliant.

After Mr Adams' death, the County Antrim woman challenged the rule that parents must have married to be entitled to a widowed parent's allowance.

First time ever

Ms McLaughlin, from Armoy, won the original case but it was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Ms McLaughlin's case was the first case heard by the court in Northern Ireland.