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Unmarried claimant of widowed parent's allowance wins Supreme Court ruling for breach of ECHR

A woman in Northern Ireland who was refused a claim for widowed parent’s allowance (WPA) because she was not married to her deceased partner, has won a ruling from the UK Supreme Court. The restrictive legislation was said to benefit those who are married or in a civil partnership, and breaches human rights law by unjustifiably discriminating against the survivor and/or children on the basis of their marital or birth status.

By a four to one majority, the court held that s 39A of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 was incompatible with article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as read with article 8, insofar as it precluded any entitlement to WPA by a surviving unmarried partner of the deceased.

Lady Hale - with whom Lord Mance, Lord Kerr and Lady Black agree - gave the substantive judgment of the majority. Lord Hodge gave a dissenting judgment. 

What is WPA?

WPA is a non-means-tested, social security benefit payable to widows with dependent children, who were bereaved before March 2017. Under s 39A of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992, the widowed parent can only claim WPA allowance if he or she was married to or the civil partner of the deceased.

The issue is whether s 39A is contrary to article 14 of the ECHR when read with either:

  • the right to respect for family life under article 8, or
  • the protection of property rights in Article 1 of the First Protocol (A1P1).

The case was brought by unmarried widow Siobhan McLaughlin who lived with partner John Adams for 23 years until his death in January 2014. The couple had four children together aged 19, 17, 13 and 11 years old when Mr Adams passed away.

The Northern Ireland Department of Communities refused Ms McLaughlin's subsequent claims for WPA on the basis that she was neither married to or the civil partner of the deceased.

Her application for judicial review - that s 39A was incompatible with ECHR - succeeded in the Northern Ireland High Court, but The Court of Appeal unanimously overturned that ruling.

Ms McLaughlin, therefore, appealed to the Supreme Court for remedy, which declared an incompatibility between the WPA and ECHR.

Read the Supreme Court judgement in full here.

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