Unmarried woman from Northern Ireland wins landmark pension battle in London Supreme Court
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Unmarried woman from Northern Ireland wins landmark pension battle in London Supreme Court

AN UNMARRIED Irish woman has won a legal battle at the Supreme Court in London to secure her deceased partner's pension. 

The Supreme Court upheld a complaint of discrimination on grounds of marital status brought by Denise Brewster, who was denied pension benefits after her partner died.

Ms Brewster, a Coleraine lifeguard, had lived with her partner Lenny McMullan for 10 years.

Two days after their engagement on Christmas Eve 2009, Mr McMullan died suddenly from a haemorrhage in the early hours of Boxing Day morning.

Mr McMullan, an employee of Translink, had planned for his family’s future by paying into his pension scheme with the Northern Ireland Local Government Scheme (NILGOSC) for 15 years.

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He did not have a will, and did not have any children.

However, Ms Brewster was denied a survivor’s pension by the administrators of the scheme on the ground that she and Mr McMullan had been cohabiting and were not married.

According to the Supreme Court documents, Ms Brewster believed that Mr McMullan had completed a form in which he nominated her.

NILGOSC said, however, that it did not receive the form and refused to pay her a survivor’s pension.

Under the scheme, married people do not have to fill in the nomination form and spouses automatically share the pension in the event of death.

Today, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal which said Ms Brewster was not entitled to a survivor's pension, and found that the pension scheme unlawfully discriminated against Ms Brewster on grounds of marital status and in breach of the Human Rights Act (the judgment can be found here).

'Significant implications for millions'

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Ms Brewster’s solicitor, Gareth Mitchell of public law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, said: “Denying bereaved cohabitees access to survivor pensions causes huge distress and financial hardship.

"Now that around one-in-six families in the UK are cohabiting families, reform is long overdue.

"The decision has significant implications for millions of cohabitees in relation to pension benefits.

"It also lays down the approach to be adopted when considering complaints of discrimination on the grounds of marital status in other areas.”

The rule which the Supreme Court has declared was unlawful is found in most of Britain's public sector pension schemes, of which there are around 12 million members.

It is also found in many defined benefit pension schemes in the private sector, of which there are around 11 million members.

Mr Mitchell added: "The discrimination under the Human Rights Act identified by the Supreme Court in this case means that wherever similar provisions appear in public sector schemes they are likely to be unenforceable and we expect them all to be removed.

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"While the Human Rights Act does not bite on private sector schemes, members of those schemes will expect their pension scheme providers to follow suit and to operate schemes which do not discriminate unfairly on grounds of marital status."