Anne Hailes: Siobhan McLaughlin's Supreme Court case could affect thousands
IT'S A big day for Siobhan McLaughlin and her four children. This morning they will be travelling from Ballycastle to Belfast to appear before the Supreme Court in what has been described as a landmark case, so important that this court has come to Northern Ireland for the first time.
Ninety minutes by train with three of her four children, a vitally important day, and then home in time for work and school tomorrow morning.
To the layman, Siobhan's case is straightforward, though the result could effect thousands of people: the possibility of claiming a bereavement award on the death of a partner. But there's a twist: whereas married couples with a family can usually expect a widowed parent's allowance automatically, if for some reason the parents are cohabiting but not married, this allowance will not be paid.
Siobhan had been fighting this on the grounds of discrimination since her partner John Adams died in January 2014 after 23 years together. They didn't marry because John was an honourable man who had promised his first wife he would not remarry after her death at the age of 35. But he fell in love with a young woman from north London and wanted to set up home and have a family and Siobhan was agreeable that they would remain partners rather than formalise their union to become husband and wife.
It didn't occur to them that this could throw up serious difficulties if either died while any of their children were still in education. Many couples are unaware of this and it's estimated that 2,000 families each year are being turned down for support on the basis of their marital status.
Denying Siobhan this benefit totals somewhere in the region of £40,000 as three of her children were of school age but born out of wedlock. It's a figure she doesn't dwell on but it must be difficult when she and her partner were together for so long, brought up their four children together, paid their taxes, shared everything and in the end she was the one who registered his death and signed his death certificate. They were closer than many married couples.
“Of course the outcome is important because I can go no further – this is as far as we can take this," Siobhan tells me. "It will be fantastic if it works out but at least with all this publicity other men and women will be aware of this law.”
Such is the interest in this case that the public will only get into the court if they have a ticket.
“I feel privileged that the judges are coming to Belfast to hear the case. I'll be a bit nervous,” she adds. "But actually I'll just be more of an interested observer. My legal team will be doing all the work.”
Affects On Children
Siobhan's children are four years older: Stuart 23, Lisa 21, Billy 16 and Rebecca is 15. They have supported their mother in every way possible since John's death.
“The day John left the house for hospital Stuart had an important exam and I know that he was thinking it might be the last time to see his dad at home and I'm sure that played on his mind," Siobhan says.
"After John's death he and the others accepted the changes and the challenges. There was no money for treats. I wanted to take them to the seaside for an ice cream, just to get out of the house and all of us be together for an afternoon, but I only had enough money to put petrol in the car for work and school the next day and there wasn't enough left over for an ice cream.
"I would have loved to take the family away on a holiday to somewhere warm and exciting but it was out of the question. We couldn't even go on holiday here in Northern Ireland.”
Don't think this strong lady is feeling sorry for herself – far from it. These are the facts of her life and she has determined to do her best for her children. She got a job as a classroom assistant which took her up to lunchtime, another then as school cleaner and also a job as a housekeeper in a local hotel.
As a result she doesn't usually get home till 7pm and doesn't have the luxury of sitting with her children at lunchtimes or teatimes; the evenings are spent making meals for the following day. Because she is on a low income she is entitled to child tax credits and there is a budget for uniforms but it barely covers essentials.
Siobhan took her case to the High Court three years ago and initially won but the government bodies involved challenged the ruling and in the end she was denied a positive result. It was a great disappointment but she and her legal team are hopeful this time she will be more fortunate.
What that means, she doesn't know: she isn't chasing a big settlement. Despite being daunted by the round of interviews she is doing, she wants the publicity, in order to warn other people.
“And more than anything I want to look my youngsters in the face and know that I tried my best and to know that a child born out of wedlock is seen as worthwhile in the eyes of the government just like any other child.”
This morning she will be appearing at the Inns of Court at the Royal Courts of Justice supported by Denise Ford from Citizen's Advice and Laura Banks from the law firm Francis Hanna & Co.
Opposite will be Supreme Court president Lady Hale with deputy president Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Hodge and Lady Black – the UK's legal crème de la crème. As this remarkable family return home on the train, the case will be debated and concluded. Then the wait for the result begins.