Unmarried mum in landmark legal win to access widowed parent's allowance
An unmarried Co Antrim mother whose partner died was discriminated against on the grounds of her marital status when she was refused a widowed parent's allowance, a High Court has ruled.
The landmark ruling sets a precedent that could see bereaved cohabiting parents across the UK receiving extra benefits.
The woman took the Department for Social Development to court following the death of her partner of 23 years.
Siobhan McLaughlin was devastated when her partner John died from cancer in January 2014, leaving behind her and their four children.
Ms McLaughlin said she was shocked when her children were denied bereavement benefits because the pair were not married.
Under current legislation people who are married or in a civil partnership may be entitled to claim a lump sum of £2,000 when their spouse passes away, plus a weekly payment of widowed parent's allowance if there are children. But those who cohabit receive nothing.
Ms McLaughlin went to Citizens Advice, which went to the High Court in Belfast to seek a judicial review on her behalf.
It claimed that the mother-of-four was unlawfully discriminated against on the basis of her marital status.
In Mr Justice Treacy's judgment yesterday, he stated that the refusal of the benefit was "not justified".
He added the Government's legislation that denied her this benefit because of her marital status "cannot be justified".
"The purpose of the benefit was to diminish the financial hardship on families consequent upon the death of one of the parents," he added.
Ms McLaughlin, whose children are aged 19, 17, 13 and 11, said she was delighted by the ruling.
"When my partner of 23 years and father of our four children, John, passed away from cancer I was devastated," she said.
"I was totally shocked to discover that our children would lose out on bereavement benefits because we weren't married, even though we have lived together as a family unit for such a long time.
"I am so delighted, not just for my own children but for many others throughout the UK that will benefit from today's judgment."
Yesterday's ruling will impact on thousands of people across the UK.
In his 33-page judgment, Mr Justice Treacy said: "Even allowing for the State's margin of appreciation, I do not consider that the exclusion of the applicant from Widowed Parent's Allowance on the grounds of her marital status can be justified.
"Indeed, it may seem somewhat strange to rely, as a justification for the restriction, on the contention that it promotes the institution of marriage and civil partnership when parents, whatever the status of the relationship, owe the same financial or legal duties towards their children.
"The restriction appears to be inimical to the interests of children."
Laura Banks, a solicitor for Citizens Advice, told the Belfast Telegraph that it was a victory for bereaved children.
"We think this is a good thing. We have strongly lobbied for this, that families shouldn't be put into poverty and children shouldn't be put into poverty over their parents' martial status," she said.
"It's a really significant decision.
"This is the first time that this case has been taken and it will affect people UK-wide and will affect families.
"Seven thousand people every year lose a partner they are not married to so those with children will benefit from this judgment."
Ms Banks has urged anyone affected by yesterday's ruling to contact their local Citizens Advice.