Unmarried mother tells of emotional rollercoaster after bereavement benefits win

Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin and solicitor Laura Banks
Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin and solicitor Laura Banks

A bereaved mother-of-four has described how she both cried and beamed with joy after a landmark legal judgement over the rights of unmarried couples.

Siobhan McLaughlin, 46, was refused bereavement benefits after her partner of 23 years, John Adams, died from cancer in January 2014 because the couple were not married or in a civil partnership.

Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin (centre) with her solicitor Laura Banks (left) and Denise Forde of Citizens Advice at a press conference at Law Society House, Belfast

Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin (centre) with her solicitor Laura Banks (left) and Denise Forde of Citizens Advice at a press conference at Law Society House, Belfast

But, by a majority of four justices to one, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday the current law on the allowance is "incompatible" with Human Rights legislation.

Ms McLaughlin said the experience had been an "emotional rollercoaster", adding: "I have cried, I have beamed with joy, I have cried more, it's been surreal. I am really happy."

The special needs classroom assistant from Armoy, Co Antrim, was with Mr Adams, a groundsman, for 23 years and they had four children - Rebecca, 15, Billy, 16, Lisa, 21, and Stuart, 23.

Following Mr Adams's death, Ms McLaughlin had to take on an evening job after being refused widowed parent's allowance by the Northern Ireland Department for Communities.

Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin (right) with her solicitor Laura Banks at a press conference at Law Society House, Belfast, following the Supreme Court ruling in her favour

Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin (right) with her solicitor Laura Banks at a press conference at Law Society House, Belfast, following the Supreme Court ruling in her favour

She said she decided to fight the case because she felt it was wrong.

"It was to fight that injustice, it was a case of, if this is what has to be done, then this is what has to be done," she said.

"It wasn't a thought process of, this is too hard, and lets not do it, because that would have been just a cop out.

"How then do you show your children not to give up at the first hurdle.

Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin (right) is greeted by her solicitor Laura Banks on her arrival for a press conference at Law Society House, Belfast, following the Supreme Court ruling in her favour, after she was refused a number of benefits following her partners death because they were not married or in a civil partnership

Unmarried mother Siobhan McLaughlin (right) is greeted by her solicitor Laura Banks on her arrival for a press conference at Law Society House, Belfast, following the Supreme Court ruling in her favour, after she was refused a number of benefits following her partners death because they were not married or in a civil partnership

"When you have an amazing team around you, you just go forward."

Solicitor Laura Banks, of Francis Hanna and Co, described the ruling as a "significant victory" not only for Ms McLaughlin and her children but for thousands of other families across the UK.

She said: "An estimated 2,000 families each year are turned away from bereavement benefits because of this legislation which the Supreme Court has today clearly state is unjustifiably discriminatory.

"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."

Giving the lead judgement on Thursday, the court's President Lady Hale said the couple's children "should not suffer this disadvantage" because their parents chose not to marry.

Ms McLaughlin said for her, it was always about the rights of bereaved children.

"I am so delighted that the Supreme Court shared our view that the law as it stands has discriminated against my children," she said.

She went on to thank Citizens Advice and her legal team, adding: "I hope that my taking and succeeding with this challenge gives others both confidence and courage to continue the challenge the unfairness and inequalities in our laws in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK."

Lady Hale said the purpose of the allowance was to "diminish the financial loss" caused to families with children by the death of a parent.

She added: "That loss is the same whether or not the parents are married or in a civil partnership with one another."

But the judge said not every case where an unmarried parent is denied the allowance after the death of their partner will be unlawful.

The court also said it is up to the Government to decide whether or how to change the law.

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: "We will consider the court's ruling carefully.

"Widowed parent's allowance was a contributory benefit and it has always been the case that inheritable benefits derived from another person's contributions should be based on the concept of legal marriage or civil partnership.

"This ruling doesn't change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits, which are paid only to people who are married or in a civil partnership."