British court, in landmark ruling, opens widows’ benefits to unmarried women

In a landmark decision, a British court ruled that an unmarried mother must receive social service benefits given to widows with children.

The U.K. Supreme Court, which meets here in London, decided Wednesday that a woman was guaranteed social service benefits even though she was unmarried. Photo courtesy TuscanyFirenze01/Wikimedia Commons
The U.K. Supreme Court, which meets here in London, decided Wednesday that a woman was guaranteed social service benefits even though she was unmarried. Photo courtesy TuscanyFirenze01/Wikimedia Commons

Judges of the U.K. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Siobhan McLaughlin, even though she is unmarried, is entitled to $152 per week in survivor’s benefits for her four children. Her partner of 23 years, John Adams, died of cancer in 2014, and she had been denied benefits to which she would have been entitled had she and Adams been married or in a recognized civil partnership. She won her original case but the decision was overturned on appeal.
In a four-to-one ruling, the Supreme Court determined that withholding the government allowance amounted to discrimination against all children born outside of marriage. The case was settled in Northern Ireland, indicating that the decision will affect the whole of the United Kingdom. The court added that it is the responsibility of U.K. legislators to decide how to change the law.

Writing for the majority, Justice Lady Hale wrote, “The allowance exists because of the responsibilities of the deceased and the survivor towards their children. Those responsibilities are the same whether or not they are married to or in a civil partnership with one another. The purpose of the allowance is to diminish the financial loss caused to families with children by the death of a parent. That loss is the same whether or not the parents are married or in a civil partnership with one another.”

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Hale added that the court’s ruling is consistent with the United Nations’ pronouncements on the rights of children.

Had McLaughlin and Adams been married, McLaughlin, 46, would have received a $2,600 lump-sum bereavement benefit from the government, and $153 per week of Widowed Parents Allowance until their youngest child, now 15, completed schooling.

The number of cohabitating, but unmarried, families in Britain rose to 3.3 million in 2017, more than double the figure in 1996, The Guardian reported on Thursday.

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“This is an extremely significant victory, not only for Siobhan and her children, but for thousands of families throughout the U.K.,” Laura Banks, McLaughlin’s attorney, said after the ruling. “We are absolutely delighted with this landmark decision and the tremendous impact it should have on the lives of families in times of great need. We consider that it finally puts an end to this shameful, almost Victorian discrimination. We urge the government to act without delay to implement the required changes to the law for the benefit of bereaved families such as Siobhan’s.”

ByEd Adamczyk