Supreme Court ruling on 'survivor's pension' could affect millions of cohabitees

Denise Brewster told the Supreme Court she was the victim of serious discrimination

A Northern Ireland woman who was refused payments from her former partner's pension has won her battle to extend benefits automatically to those who are unmarried.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in her favour - a move which is likely to improve the pension rights of unmarried couples in the public sector.

She applied for a judicial review which went all the way up to the Supreme Court where a unanimous ruling said the nomination process should not apply to the scheme.

Denise Brewster lived with her partner William Leonard McMullan for around 10 years up to December 2009. In 2009, the couple got engaged, but McMullan suddenly died two days later.

She won her case in the High Court in Northern Ireland, before the decision was overturned at the Court of Appeal.

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.

"With more than six million people living together as couples and the numbers rising every year, this is an issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency".

The case could have implications for all pension schemes.

Today's ruling will raise further questions about the differentiation in the new rules between married and unmarried couples.

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Co-habiting partners instead had to complete a form nominating their partner, and while Brewster believed it had been, NILGOSC maintained it had not.

"We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in today, and not the world of 50 years ago".

For 15 years, McMullan had been an employee of Translink, a public transport operator in Northern Ireland, and had paid into the LGPS. "In the meantime we would encourage any surviving partner of a deceased co-habiting scheme member who did not receive their full suite of pension benefits because a nomination was not made to make contact with us".

In this case, the form has been condemned as "unlawful discrimination" by the Supreme Court because you do not have to fill it in if you are married.

Helen Mountfield QC, representing Ms Brewster, 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.

Brewster's lawyers had argued that the requirement of the nomination form was disproportionate and in effect discriminatory.

"A positive decision from the Supreme Court is likely to impact on discrimination against cohabitees across a wide range of areas, not just pension rights".

The Court ruling stated: "There is no rational connection between the objective, which was to remove the difference of treatment between a longstanding cohabitant and a married or civil partner, and the imposition of the nomination requirement and therefore its discriminatory effect can not be justified".

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

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