A gay former cavalry officer has won a legal battle to provide his husband with equal pension rights in a landmark discrimination case at the supreme court.
The unanimous judgment, which could benefit thousands of couples, will ensure that should John Walker die first, his partner will have access to an income of about £45,000 a year for life. It may also impose unexpected liabilities on pension funds.
Lawyers for the human rights organisation Liberty, which represented Walker, argued that a same-sex husband should enjoy the same pension rights as a widow. Under current law, Walker’s husband would receive only about £1,000 a year.
Walker, 65, has been with his husband, a former computer executive who is 52, since 1993. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force in December 2005. They entered into a civil partnership in January 2006, which was later converted into marriage.
Delivering the judgment, Lord Kerr said: “The salary paid to Mr Walker throughout his working life was precisely the same as that which would have been paid to a heterosexual man. There was no reason for the company to anticipate that it would not become liable to pay a survivor’s pension to his lawful spouse.”
To deny his partner access to the funds would amount to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, he added, even though the pension rights were earned before the Civil Partnership Act came into force.
Kerr said: “Mr Walker’s husband is entitled to a spouse’s pension calculated on all the years of his service with Innospec [the chemicals company where he worked], provided that at the date of Mr Walker’s death, they remain married.”
The judges’ decision was based on an EU framework directive from 2000 guaranteeing gender equality under employment law. An employment appeal tribunal and the court of appeal had previously declared that the 2010 Equality Act permitted firms to restrict benefits generated by periods of service before 2005.
Welcoming the decision, Walker said: “I am absolutely thrilled at today’s ruling, which is a victory for basic fairness and decency. Finally this absurd injustice has been consigned to the history books – and my husband and I can now get on with enjoying the rest of our lives together.
“But it is to our government’s great shame that it has taken so many years, huge amounts of taxpayers’ money and the UK’s highest court to drag them into the 21st century. In the years since we started this legal challenge, how many people have spent their final days uncertain about whether their loved one would be looked after? How many people have been left unprovided for, having already suffered the loss of their partner?
“What I would like from Theresa May and her ministers today is a formal commitment that this change will stay on the statute books after Brexit.”
Emma Norton, Liberty’s lawyer who acted for Walker, said: “We are delighted the supreme court recognised this pernicious little provision for what it was – discrimination against gay people, pure and simple.
“But this ruling was made under EU law and is a direct consequence of the rights protection the EU gives us. We now risk losing that protection. The government must promise that there will be no rollback on LGBT rights after Brexit – and commit to fully protecting them in UK law.
“How else can John be sure he and others like him have achieved lasting justice today?”
The Department for Work and Pensions has warned that giving retrospective effect to the EU framework directive would impose costs on pension schemes.
A government spokesperson said: “We are reviewing the implications of this judgment in detail and will respond in due course.
“The rights of same-sex couples have been transformed for the better since 2010, including the introduction of same-sex marriage and legislation to ensure that pensions are built up equally for all legal partnerships.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010