During the hearing, which took place yesterday at the supreme court in Belfast, judges were told that the state’s refusal to pay mother of four, Siobhan McLaughlin Widowed Parents’ Allowance because she was not married to her children’s father, is discriminatory to children born out of wedlock.
Siobhan McLaughlin’s partner John Adams died in January 2014. The couple from County Antrim had spent 23 years together,but Ms McLaughlin was refused bereavement payment and widow’s parent’s allowance because they weren’t married.
The Childhood Bereavement Network, part of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), intervened in the case, submitting evidence and legal arguments to the court, including anecdotal evidence from benefits advisers that many parents don’t realise the situation until it’s too late.
This is the first supreme court sitting in Northern Ireland and only the second time it has sat away from its permanent home in London.
It comes two years after the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee recommended that bereavement benefits be extended to support cohabiting couples with dependent children. However, the Government claims that to prove cohabitations would be a ‘complex lengthy process’.
A ruling on the case is expected in months.
Alison Penny of the Childhood Bereavement Network said, ‘Parents make the same National Insurance contributions whether they are married or cohabiting. But if one of them dies, their contributions only entitle their partner and children to bereavement support if the couple were married.
'We estimate that every year, over 2,000 families like Siobhan’s face the double hit of one parent dying, and the other parent realising that they and the children aren’t eligible for bereavement benefits. And with cohabiting couples the fastest growing family type in the UK, the problem is only going to get worse. On average, a cohabiting parent earning £10,000 a year loses out by over £15,000 over the children’s childhood if their partner dies.
‘Married parents can use the Widowed Parent’s Allowance to prioritise their grieving children’s needs, but cohabiting parents don’t get that help. In life, parents have the same responsibilities to their children whether they are married or cohabiting – why should it be different in death? Bereaved children have the same needs for food, shelter, love and attention, regardless of their parents’ marital status – it’s unjust to discriminate against them on these grounds. In many other countries, children qualify for bereavement benefits themselves, so their parents’ marital status doesn’t make a difference.’
She added, ‘With widowed parents and campaigning organisations across the UK, we’ve been campaigning to right this wrong, and make sure that grieving children don’t lose out because of their parents’ marital status.’