Last week the Supreme Court ruled in favour of an unmarried woman who wanted to claim benefits from her deceased partners' pension scheme. The Supreme Court's decision is likely to improve the pension rights of unmarried couples in the public sector.
Denise Brewster had been living with her partner, Lenny McMullan, for 10 years and they owned their own home. The couple were engaged on Christmas Eve 2009, but two days later Mr McMullan died unexpectedly aged just 43.
Mr McMullan had been employed by the Northern Ireland public transport service Translink for 15 years. During this time he had payed into Northern Ireland's local government pension scheme.
As the couple were not married and were only cohabiting, Ms Brewster was not automatically eligible to share Mr McMullan's pension. Instead the Pension Scheme required members to complete a designated form to nominate cohabiting partners before they would become eligible for survivor's benefits. This form had not been completed, contrary to Ms Brewster's belief.
If the couple had been married Ms Brewster would have been automatically entitled to a share of the pension that Mr McMullan had built up. Ms Brewster argued that the requirement of the nomination form was therefore disproportionate and she was the victim of 'serious discrimination.'
Ms Brewster initially won her case in the High Court in Northern Ireland, where a judge said that it was "irrational and disproportionate to impose a disqualifying hurdle of this kind." However, the decision was overturned in the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland before the case went to the UK's highest court for a final decision.
The Supreme Court's Ruling
Ms Brewster argued that the requirement for a nomination form amounted to a breach of Article 14 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 14 prohibits discrimination in the way human right laws are applied. Ms Brewster claimed that the requirement of the nomination form was discriminatory as married couples were not under the same obligation.
Despite being made clear that a nomination form was necessary in the rules governing the Pension Scheme, the Supreme Court agreed with Ms Brewster's argument. In their unanimous decision, the five Supreme Court justices said the requirement for a nomination form should be removed from the pension scheme. In making the judgment, Lord Kerr commented that to suggest that 'a requirement that the surviving cohabitant must be nominated by the scheme member justified the limitation of [Ms Brewster's] Article 14 right, is at least, highly questionable.'
The Legal Implications
There are now 3.3 million cohabiting couple families in the UK, with the number more than doubling over the last twenty years. The Supreme Court's decision marks a significant extension of the rights of these unmarried cohabitees working in the public sector and could potentially affect the rights of millions of families across the UK
As it stands, nurses, teachers, civil servants, police and fire officers all have to fill in a nomination form if they want their unmarried partners to share in their pension if they die. The ruling could result in other public sector schemes changing their rules so unmarried couples automatically benefit from survivor's pensions without being opted in. The ruling could also spark fresh legal challenges in other areas of perceived discrimination against cohabiting couples, including inheritance tax and capital gains tax.
One thing to bear in mind is that the ruling is limited by the fact that it does not extend to private sector pension schemes. However, the judgment may result in private sector schemes re-visiting their own rules looking at their fairness and appropriateness in light of the Supreme Court's decision.
It is also not yet clear whether this would lead to any retrospective change in the rules. This is likely to be dependent on another court hearing.
To find out more or discuss your individual requirements in further detail, our dedicated Family Law Solicitors will be delighted to help. Contact us today on 01603 693500 or email us using the 'Make an enquiry' form. Appointments available at our Norwich, North Walsham, Brooke and Sheringham offices.