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Mum of four in Supreme Court battle for bereavement benefits

A grieving mother and child

*Picture posed by models

A mum’s legal battle for bereavement benefits to support her four children is to go before the Supreme Court in Belfast.

Siobhan McLaughlin is appealing for rights that could change the lives of many families facing financial hardship after the death of a long-term partner and parent, due to their marital status.

Siobhan who was unmarrried, but lived with her partner and father of her four children, John Adams, for more than 23 years, is battling for the bereavement benefits her family would have been entitled to if the couple had been wed or in a civil partnership.

Had she been married to John at the time of his death in 2014, Siobhan would have been entitled to a lump sum Bereavement Benefit payment of £2,000 and Widowed Parent’s Allowance of up to £118 a week to support their children until they left school. Siobhan and John’s children were aged 19, 17, 13 and 11 when he died.

Bereavement benefits claims

Siobhan had challenged Northern Ireland's Department for Social Development after John died in 2014, when it refused her claim for Bereavement Benefit and Widowed Parent’s Allowance.

Unsure what to do, she initially approached Citizens Advice, which supported and encouraged her throughout her journey to bring her case to the Supreme Court.

Siobhan took her case to the High Court in 2015. Although she lost her claim for Bereavement Benefit, judge Mr Justice Treacy ruled that there was no justification in denying her a Widowed Parent’s Allowance to support the children she’d had together with John. However, this decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in December 2016.

She has now been given permission by the Supreme Court to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision.

Hope of legal reform

Siobhan’s solicitor Laura Banks of law firm Francis Hanna & Co said: “This case is extremely significant because it impacts not only Siobhan’s family but many others throughout Northern Ireland and the UK who have lost a parent.

“It is not fair, nor we say is it lawful, that Siobhan’s children, or indeed any child, should be turned down for support when they need it most, on the basis of the circumstances of their parents. Their loss is no different and they should not be forced into poverty at a time of bereavement.

“The case opens wider debate [about] our welfare system and how we support the most vulnerable in our society, in particular children. We are hopeful for a positive outcome in the Supreme Court next year which will bring about much needed reform.”

Bereavement support: Campaigning for change

Bereavement Benefit and Widowed Parent’s Allowance were replaced by the Bereavement Support Payment in April 2017, which saw the window of time in which widowed parents can receive support, limited to 18 months.

Bereavement campaigners have been calling on the Government to bring about reforms that will better support the bereaved, including children from unmarried families.

A coalition of bereavement charities is behind a task force called Life Matters, which is calling for the introduction of a cross-government bereavement strategy which also looks beyond financial support to include wider issues affecting bereaved children and parents. Among them is Winston’s Wish, which supports families and provides specialist child bereavement support services across the UK.

Its chief executive, Fergus Crow, said: “As members of the Life Matters taskforce for bereaved families, we know the impact that cuts to bereavement benefits have had on bereaved families and, as a result, will of course follow Ms McLaughlin’s case.

“From speaking to the families we support, we know the additional impact that financial pressures have on bereaved parents and their children. We back the Task Force’s call for financial support for bereaved children and families which is timely, sustained and fair, recognising the needs of all parents and carers.”

Bereavement damages

In November, a landmark court case brought by unmarried Jakki Smith after the death of her long term partner, saw the Court of Appeal rule in her favour over her human rights claim for the Government’s £12,980 bereavement damages payment. The statutory award can be claimed by married people who are widowed in preventable circumstances, due to a third party's negligence.

By winning her case, Jakki, who had lived with her late partner John Bulloch for 16 years before he died, could set a legal precedent for future court claims brought by bereaved partners. It’s also hoped the case will bring about a change in law, which would automatically entitle unmarried people to claim bereavement damages after their partner’s death, in the future.

Siobhan McLaughlin’s Supreme Court appeal will be heard at Belfast’s Inns of Court Library at the Royal Courts of Justice, on April 30 and May 1, 2018.