Supreme Court backs claimant in pensions struggle

Family Law|February 8th 2017

A woman whose partner died suddenly the day after their engagement has won the right to a survivor’s pension at the Supreme Court.

Denise Brewster lived with her partner Larry McMullan in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, for ten years. He worked for Translink, the key public transport agency in the province.

The couple finally became engaged on Christmas Eve 2009, but tragically, Mr McMullan died suddenly not much more than a day later. Because they had never been married Denise had no entitlement to a widow’s pension. In addition, her deceased partner had not completed the nomination forms that would have designated her as the recipient of his occupational pension in the event of his death. Consequently she had no official entitlement to the payments.

She pursued her claim. The High Court of Northern Ireland ruled in her favour, but this decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeal. But convinced she had a just case, Denise launched a fundraising campaign and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. Her legal team argued there that her right to freedom from discrimination under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been breached by the pension scheme.

Five Justices agreed, ruling unanimously that forbidding her access to the pension payments had indeed constituted “unlawful discrimination”.

Lord Kerr said that the legislation involved, the Local Government Pension Scheme (Benefits, Membership and Contributions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009, must have been designed to “remove the difference in treatment between a long-standing cohabitant and a married or civil partner of a scheme member.”

He continued:

“To suggest that, in furtherance of that objective, a requirement that the surviving cohabitant must be nominated by the scheme member justified the limitation of the appellant’s Article 14 right, is, at least highly questionable.”

Stowe Family Law Senior Partner Marilyn Stowe welcomed the ruling.

It doesn’t devalue marriage. It simply removes an unnecessary layer of regulation that doesn’t apply to marriage or civil partnership and the court found added nothing to the process.”

Meanwhile, Stowe Family Law Managing Partner Julian Hawkhead called the result “a triumph for justice and common sense over bureaucracy”.

He explained:

“The rights of cohabiting couples have been long debated with reform supposedly on the agenda to give such couples rights akin to married couples so that they would be able to make financial claims when the relationship ends and to give them a similar entitlement to financial provision to married couples on death. Although this case deals with a very specific legal point it will no doubt continue to fuel the debate that societal changes to the way in which people choose to live together demands reform. In the meantime for the tragedy of Ms Brewster there is at least some comfort to knowing that her late fiance’s wishes have now been fulfilled.”

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  1. Estelle Christmas says:

    This is a really reassuring outcome and brings us much closer to the long awaited need for reform to the law surrounding cohabitation.

  2. Stitchedup says:

    This may seem strange given what my ex had done to me, but I would still like her to receive a survivor’s pension from my scheme in the event of my death. The way I look at it, she will be in a better position to help my sons. I do have a lump sum death in service benefit which I’ve assigned 50/50 to my sons. However. I have nobody to benefit from the survivor’s pension. We have separated but were together for 20 years. It’s a shame there isn’t a mechanism whereby I can say “ok we’re separated but I would still like her to benefit from my pension in the event of my death”. I still pay for joint critical illness cover, much to the dismay of my bank manager who was quick to point out that if she were to claim I would get nothing and would be left with no cover. Not an issue for me as in my mind the protection is in reality for the benefit of my sons. No doubt some feminist will raise their head and call this an attempt to control 🙂

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