Supreme Court rules Coleraine woman is entitled to ‘survivor’s pension’

Denise Brewster. Photo by John Aston/PA Wire

Denise Brewster. Photo by John Aston/PA Wire

A Coleraine woman has won an appeal to the Supreme Court after being denied payments from her late long-term partner’s occupational pension.

Denise Brewster, from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, challenged a ruling she is not automatically entitled to a “survivor’s pension” as she would have been if the couple had been married.

Five Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled she is entitled to receive payments under the pension scheme.

Ms Brewster and Lenny McMullan lived together for 10 years and owned their own home.

They got engaged on Christmas Eve 2009, but Mr McMullan died suddenly between Christmas night and the early hours of Boxing Day morning.

At the time of his death Mr McMullan had 15 years’ service with Translink, which delivers Northern Ireland’s public transport services. He was paying into Northern Ireland’s local government pension scheme.

The scheme is governed by rules made under the Local Government Pension Scheme (Benefits, Membership and Contributions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009.

Under the regulations, married partners automatically obtain a survivor’s pension, but unmarried partners only receive a pension if there has been compliance with an “opt-in” requirement.

This involves the pension scheme member nominating their partner for payments by giving the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee (Nilgosc) a declaration signed by both partners.

Although she met all the other criteria, Nilgosc refused Ms Brewster a survivor’s pension because the committee had not received the appropriate nomination form from Mr McMullan.

The High Court in Northern Ireland allowed her legal challenge against the refusal, but the Court of Appeal overturned that decision.

Now the Supreme Court has ruled in Ms Brewster’s favour.

Helen Mountfield QC, representing Ms Brewster, who is in her early 40s, had asked the Supreme Court to declare that the opt-in nomination rule in the 2009 regulations breached Article 14 and Article 1 of the First Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. Nilgosc contested the action.

Article 14 prohibits discrimination in the way human rights laws are applied, and the First Protocol protects a person’s right to property and the peaceful enjoyment of possessions.

Giving the Supreme Court’s ruling, Lord Kerr said he considered the objective of relevant provisions of the 2009 regulations “must have been to remove the difference in treatment between a long-standing cohabitant and a married or civil partner of a scheme member.

“To suggest that, in furtherance of that objective, a requirement that the surviving cohabitant must be nominated by the scheme member justified the limitation of the appellant’s Article 14 right, is, ast least highly questionable.”

Ordering the nomination requirement in the 2009 regulations be “disapplied”, the judge also said he considered there was “no rational connection between the objective and the imposition of the nomination requirement”.