Northern Ireland news

Video: Mother wins widowed parent's allowance after legal challenge

Siobhan McLaughlin with three of her children outside Belfast High Court at a previous hearing
Sian Harrison, Press Association

An unmarried mother from Co Antrim has won a Supreme Court battle to access widowed parent's allowance for her bereaved children.

Siobhan McLaughlin (46) was refused the benefit after her partner John Adams died from cancer in January 2014 because the couple, who had four children and were together for 23 years, were not married or in a civil partnership.

She initially won a case after claiming unlawful discrimination based on her marital status, but that ruling was later overturned by the Court of Appeal.

But, by a majority of four justices to one, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the current law on the allowance is "incompatible" with human rights legislation.

Giving the lead judgment, the court's President Lady Hale said: "The allowance exists because of the responsibilities of the deceased and the survivor towards their children.

"Those responsibilities are the same whether or not they are married to or in a civil partnership with one another.

"The purpose of the allowance is to diminish the financial loss caused to families with children by the death of a parent.

"That loss is the same whether or not the parents are married or in a civil partnership with one another."

However, Lady Hale said not every case where an unmarried parent is denied the allowance after the death of their partner will be unlawful.

The court also said it is up to the government to decide whether or how to change the law.

Ms McLaughlin, a special needs classroom assistant from Armoy, Co Antrim, was with her partner John Adams, a groundsman, for 23 years and they had four children - Rebecca (15), Billy (16), Lisa (21) and 23-year-old Stuart.

Following Mr Adams's death, Ms McLaughlin had to take on an evening job after being refused widowed parent's allowance by the Department for Communities.

Speaking outside court after the April hearing in the Supreme Court, which sat in Northern Ireland for the first time, Ms McLaughlin thanked supporters, Citizens Advice and her legal team.

Attending with two of her children, she said: "This case was never about me. I would love to be recognised as a widow but I accept in the eyes of the law and the government that I am not.

"What I wasn't prepared to accept was how the government viewed my children - how they could treat my grieving, bereaved children as insignificant.

"I am such a private person but to sit and accept that this is how it is made me say, 'No, this is wrong'.

"I want to look my children in the eye and say it is the government at fault here, not you, and because of this I have tried to rectify this for you."

Laura Banks, Siobhan McLaughlin's solicitor, described the ruling as "an extremely significant victory".

She said it was a victory not only for Ms McLaughlin and her children, but for thousands of families throughout the UK.

"As estimated 2,000 families each year are turned away from bereavement benefits because of this legislation which the Supreme Court has today clearly stated is unjustifiably discriminatory," she said.

"We are absolutely delighted with this landmark decision and the tremendous impact it should have on the lives of families in times of great need.

"We consider that it finally puts an end to this shameful, almost Victorian, discrimination.

"We urge government to act without delay to implement the required changes to the law for the benefit of bereaved families such as Siobhan's."

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: "We will consider the court's ruling carefully.

"Widowed parent's allowance was a contributory benefit and it has always been the case that inheritable benefits derived from another person's contributions should be based on the concept of legal marriage or civil partnership.

"This ruling doesn't change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits, which are paid only to people who are married or in a civil partnership."

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