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Landmark Ruling Recognises Rights of Cohabiting Couples

Landmark Ruling Recognises Rights of Cohabiting Couples

A woman has won her legal battle for better rights for unmarried people who lose their long-term partners.

Jakki Smith, a 59-year-old NHS worker from Chorley in Lancashire, took the government to court for breaching her human rights after being denied bereavement damages because she was not married to her partner when he died.

Legal experts say the Court of Appeal ruling is a small but significant move towards giving equal rights to married and cohabiting couples.

Denied rights to a family life

Ms Smith found out that she was not entitled to claim the £11,800 bereavement damages when her partner of 16 years, former prison governor John Bulloch, died aged 66 in October 2011 after an infection was missed by medics.

A fixed sum, which is now £12,980, is paid out if a person dies as a result of negligence, such as in medical cases, industrial incidents or accidents which are judged to be the consequence of failings by an organisation or individual – but only to spouses or civil partners.

Mr Bulloch had a benign tumour on his right foot removed in August 2011 and fell ill while on holiday in Turkey.

Ms Smith said the current legislation was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and argued that she was being discriminated against because she was unmarried and was being denied her right to a family life according to articles 8 and 14.

Her legal team said the award should be available to anyone who had been in a relationship for at least two years.

No retrospective payment – but ‘massive injustice’ is remedied

The Court of Appeal allowed Ms Smith’s challenge against a previous High Court ruling dismissing her claim. The High Court last year decided that there was no incompatibility between the 1976 Fatal Accidents Act, which legislates for the damages, and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Ms Smith won’t herself qualify for any damages because there is no possibility of a retrospective payment. She brought the legal challenge because of what she believed was a “massive injustice.”

Ms Smith said:

“Nothing will bring John back, but he was a firm believer in everyone being treated equally and I think he would have agreed with me that this is worth fighting for. Just because John and I hadn’t said vows to each other and didn’t wear wedding rings didn’t mean we weren’t completely committed to each other.”

My fight has never been for the money, it’s about having meaningful relationships recognised . . . I just hope what has happened helps other people who may find themselves in this tragic situation.”

“If you are living together the government classes you as a couple for the purpose of payments like council tax and jobseeker’s allowance, so why not when it comes to this?” she said.

She added that she was “optimistic and hopeful” the government would now consider changing the legislation.

It will now be for parliament to decide whether to change the law in line with the ruling.

Law must reflect changing lifestyles

Ms Smith’s lawyer said the ruling was a “historic decision” and “long overdue.”

The Law Commission had previously recommended co-habiting couples should be eligible for bereavement damages and the government also produced a draft bill in 2009, although it was never progressed. Ms Smith’s lawyer noted: “The way we live is changing. Couples are choosing not to marry but this does not detract from the bond they have.”

Contact our family law experts for more advice

If you would like to discuss any aspect of family law, are considering divorce proceedings or a trial separation, or want to draw up a pre or post-nuptial agreement, or a cohabitation agreement, call us in absolute confidence on 03456 381381. Alternatively, email us at familylaw@ibblaw.co.uk.