A woman’s fight for access to a widowed parent’s allowance is testing the rights of unmarried couples across the country at the supreme court’s first hearing in Belfast.
The state’s refusal to pay Siobhan McLaughlin the benefit amounts to discrimination against children born out of wedlock, the UK’s highest court has been told.
The special needs classroom assistant from Armoy in County Antrim has four children: Rebecca, 15, Billy, 16, Lisa, 21, and Stuart, 23.
Her partner, John Adams, a former groundsman, died from cancer in January 2014. She was refused the bereavement payment and widowed parent’s allowance because they were neither married nor in a civil partnership.
“It is wrong that a child born out of wedlock is not seen as deserving as one born to a married couple,” she said before the case started at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast on Monday.
This is the first time the supreme court has heard a case in Northern Ireland. Last year, justices sat in Edinburgh, the first time they had considered cases outside Westminster.
The five justices hearing the benefits appeal are the supreme court president, Lady Hale, the deputy president, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Hodge and Lady Black.
McLaughlin, 46, who had to supplement her income by taking on additional evening cleaning work, said: “It is heartbreaking to even contemplate the difference this could have made. It might just have made life slightly easier. It might have meant that I could have been at home every night to prepare the supper as I had been when John was here.
“But because I had to go back to work, I am no longer there, so not only did they lose their dad they also lost me and that stability. But I have to provide for them, to pay the rent for the house and you have to go on and that’s hard.”
McLaughlin applied for a judicial review of the decision, claiming unlawful discrimination based on her marital status. She won her original court case but it was overturned by the court of appeal in Belfast.
She said: “I get that the benefit is called a widowed parent’s allowance and that the child element is branched within that. I get that I am not allowed to class myself as a widow. It was a family unit: the children have John’s surname, his name is on their birth certificates.
“Win or lose, it has brought the issue to the forefront of people’s minds. It is something that many people were not aware of.”
The challenge is one of a series of cases in the coming weeks that will throw the spotlight on the way the law differentiates between those in marriages, civil partnerships or simply living together.
Jo Edwards, head of family law at the London firm Forsters and former chair of Resolution, the national family lawyers’ association, said: “Siobhan McLaughlin’s case once again brings into sharp focus the different treatment of unmarried couples, compared with their married counterparts, when their relationship ends through separation or death.
“This is the third high-profile case in the past year in which the treatment of unmarried couples on the death of one has been tested, and in the last two – Denise Brewster and Jakki Smith – the existing position was found to be discriminatory and contrary to the parties’ human rights.
“In Siobhan McLaughlin’s case, the fact that she is not entitled to bereavement benefits has left her four children in poverty because of the different treatment by the state of their parents’ relationship than if they had married. In a civilised society, that cannot be right.
“State benefits are available to cohabiting couples during their lifetime; there is no good reason why they shouldn’t be afforded the same treatment on death.”
Judgment in the case is likely to be reserved to a later date.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010