Denial of benefits to families of unmarried couples breaches human rights

Denying the unmarried mother of four children a widowed parent’s allowance is illegal, the Supreme Court has ruled, in a decision that significantly extends the rights of unmarried couples.

By a majority of four to one, the Court’s justices declared the government’s refusal to pay up to £117 a week in benefits breached the family’s human rights. It will put pressure on ministers to consider making urgent changes to the law.

The judgment follows a hearing earlier this year in Belfast where the court was told that withholding the allowance from Siobhan McLaughlin amounted to discrimination against all children born out of wedlock.

Delivering the majority decision, Lady Hale said: “It is difficult indeed to see the justification for denying people and their children benefits, or paying them at a lower rate of benefit, simply because the adults are not married to one another. Their needs, and more importantly their children’s needs, are the same.

That view was consistent, Hale added, with the UK’s obligations under article three of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which states: “In all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

Jo Edwards, a partner and head of family law at the London firm Forsters LLP, said the ruling was a victory for common sense.

“Lady Hale rightly questions the justification for denying people and their children benefits, or paying them at a lower rate, simply because the adults weren’t married to one another.

“In making this ruling, which could affect tens of thousands of cohabiting couples with dependent children … the supreme court is effectively requiring government to revisit its policy and decide whether, and if so, how, the law should be changed.”

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Image credit: Thomas’s pics, Flickr