Expert comment: Widowed Parent Allowance court case31 August 2018
An mother this week won a landmark Supreme Court battle to receive Widowed Parent Allowance, despite being unmarried.
Siobhan McLaughlin, 46, was refused the benefit after her partner of 23 years, John Adams, died of cancer in 2014 because they had never married or entered into a civil partnership.
However, she managed to overturn the decision on appeal after it was decided the allowance is required to fulfil responsibilities towards the bereaved children, regardless of marital status.
Dr Thérèse Callus, family law expert in the School of Law at the University of Reading, said:
"The significance of this case is clear, but its scope should not be exaggerated. Whilst it goes some way to recognising that cohabitant parents should be entitled to the same benefits as parents who are married, it does not go so far as to recognise the same rights for unmarried partners as those granted to married couples.
"It is a victory for the recognition that a child should not be discriminated against on the basis of their parents’ marital status. It also puts the thorny question of the legal financial consequences following the breakdown or end of a cohabiting relationship back on the agenda. But let’s not get carried away: the Law Commission back in 2007 recommended reform for cohabiting couples, but it has continuously been kicked into the long grass by successive governments.
"So the message is clear: there may well be public support and a legal need for reform of the consequences of cohabitation, but this case is only a small step on a long and difficult route towards that becoming a reality.
"Moreover, Lord Hodge’s dissent identifies a number of elements particular to the Widowed Parent Allowance which supports an interpretation of the benefit being not for the children but rather for the surviving partner. Certain characteristics – the fact that it is a contributory benefit (ie resulting from contributions made by the deceased partner and not means-tested) and that it will be withdrawn if the surviving parent marries or enters a civil partnership – suggest that it is directly for the benefit of the partner (and only indirectly for the children). It is not varied by the number or needs of the children.
"We should also note that this case refers to the law as it stood in 2014 when Mr Adams died: the law has since been changed and for deaths since 2017. The focus is on a lump sum payment in the immediate aftermath of the death, with payments up to only 18 months following the bereavement. However, it still only applies to spouses and civil partners, and Parliament did not take the opportunity of reform to extend its application to cohabitants.
"So although numerous studies, lawyers and the Law Commission have recognised that something needs to be done to recognise the consequences of the growing number of cohabiting couples in England and Wales, this case alone does not mean that cohabitants can sleep a little easier tonight thinking that they have the same rights as married couples – they do not. Only a willingness by the Government of the Day followed by extensive Parliamentary debate can ensure that the reform called for becomes a reality."