Landmark ruling grants unmarried mum widowed parent’s benefit

An unmarried mother who won a Supreme Court battle to access widowed parent's allowance for her bereaved children has described the landmark ruling as a victory for "the rights of those children who were born out of wedlock".

Siobhan McLaughlin, 46, was refused the benefit after her partner John Adams died from cancer in January 2014 because the couple - were not married or in a civil partnership.

After the ruling, Ms McLaughlin told reporters how the court battle was an "emotional rollercoaster" but "succeeding with this challenge gives others both confidence and courage to continue to challenge the unfairness and inequalities" in the UK.

She added: "I was focusing on the injustice of children and the rights of those children who were born out of wedlock and how they haven't got a voice and with the team and myself, well yeah, they actually do have a voice and we changed it."

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 Stuart, 23.

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

The lead judgement, the court’s President Lady Hale said not every case where an unmarried parent is denied the allowance after the death of their partner will be unlawful.

The Supreme Court, by a majority of four justices to one, ruled on Thursday, the current law on the allowance is "incompatible" with Human Rights legislation.

John Adams, (centre) who died in 2014, with his four children Rebecca, Billy, Lisa and Stuart. Credit: PA

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."

Siobhan McLaughlin says she and her legal team, Laura Banks and Denise Forde, succeeded in giving children born out of wedlock a voice. Credit: ITV News

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

Laura Banks, Ms 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."

Siobhan McLaughlin (middle) won her court fight. Credit: PA

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

Speaking after the ruling, Ms McLaughlin said: "For me, this case was always about the rights of bereaved children.

"I am so delighted that the Supreme Court shared our view that the law as it stands has discriminated against my children."

Speaking outside court after the April hearing in the Supreme Court, which sat in Northern Ireland for the first time, Ms McLaughlin thanked supporters.

Siobhan McLaughlin with her children Billy and Rebecca Adams. Credit: PA

Campaigners urged the Government to update the law to accommodate cohabiting couples who choose not to marry.

Alison Penny, director of the Childhood Bereavement Network, said the current rules affect an estimated 2,000 families a year.

She added: "We urge Parliament to amend the relevant legislation as quickly as possible, and to clarify the position for those parents who were previously deemed ineligible because of their marital status.

"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."

Despite the court's decision, Ms McLaughlin will not receive any bereavement payment until, or if, the law changes, however the Department for Work and Pensions said it will "consider the court's ruling carefully".

On the subject of bereavement payment, Ms McLaughlin told ITV News: "Financially I haven't dwelt on it, because it was money that was never ours and I really am not looking at...this as our money until it's actually in my bank account."

She added: "Yes, financially if we gain from this, absolutely it will take the pressure off."

A DWP spokesman said: "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."