Unmarried mother in Northern Ireland granted permission to challenge denial of bereavement benefits

An unmarried mother in Northern Ireland has secured High Court permission to challenge the ongoing denial of bereavement benefits.

he woman, who cannot be identified, was granted leave to seek a judicial review of her exclusion from the financial support following the death of her partner.

Proceedings have now been put on hold for two months amid expectations that delayed UK-wide legislation will be introduced to rectify the acknowledged breach of human rights.

Under current eligibility criteria a Bereavement Support Allowance (BSA) can be awarded to a surviving spouse or civil partner.

In 2018 County Antrim woman Siobhan McLaughlin won a landmark legal battle over being refused a widowed parent’s allowance following the death of her partner John Adams.

The couple had four children and lived together for 23 years, but never wed.

Supreme Court justices declared that the policy on the benefit is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

But four years later the Government has still not changed the law to reflect a ruling which put pressure on politicians to act.

Another woman, referred to as JR 228 under an anonymity order, brought a fresh challenge against Stormont’s Department for Communities in a bid to secure access to the BSA.

The court heard she is under financial strain following the recent death of her long-term cohabiting partner.

Based on the findings in Ms McLaughlin’s case, lawyers for JR 228 contended that the present eligibility criteria for a BSA unlawfully discriminates against the unmarried.

They also sought an order requiring the Department to make interim payments to the woman pending the final outcome.

Mr Justice Scoffield was told the acknowledged incompatibility is set to be remedied by the draft Bereavement Benefits (Remedial) Order 2021.

But amid a series of delays in tabling the Bill at Parliament, that legislation is not expected to come into force until next year.

Counsel for the Department that any interim relief order would be a step too far, potentially opening the floodgates to wider payments without any current legal basis and depleting Northern Ireland’s Block Grant funding from Westminster.

Extending the bereavement support payments to cohabiting couples in the region could cost an estimated £4.5m, the court heard.

Ruling on the initial stage of the challenge, the judge expressed sympathy for JR 228’s current financial plight.

“It would be impossible not to be moved by some of the averments in (her) affidavit evidence,” he said.

Mr Justice Scoffield decided against ordering any interim payments, pointing out that there is currently no statutory authority for such a requirement.

He confirmed, however, that leave to apply for judicial review was being granted due to the further delay in advancing the legislation.

Staying the case for an eight-week period, the judge added: “In light of what the Department said in its response to pre- action correspondence in this case, the making and laying of the Remedial Order should be progressed as expeditiously as possible.” 

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