Unmarried NI woman wins pension battle
A woman who lost her long-term partner has won a legal battle that is likely to improve the pension rights of unmarried couples in the public sector.
Denise Brewster, who was denied payments from her late partner’s occupational pension, argued that she was the victim of “serious discrimination”.
Following a to and fro legal fight, she won her case at the UK’s highest court.
The case was closely watched by pension schemes which could change their rules.
Ms Brewster, a lifeguard from Coleraine, and Lenny McMullan lived together for 10 years and owned their own home.
Mr McMullan died suddenly at Christmas in 2009, aged 43, two days after they had got engaged.
At the time of his death he had worked for the Northern Ireland public transport service, Translink, for 15 years, paying into an occupational pension scheme administered by the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee (NILGOSC).
If they had been married she would have automatically shared the pension that he had built up.
Instead, co-habiting partners were only eligible for survivor’s allowances in the same way if she had been nominated on a form. However, this form had not been completed.
Ms Brewster, who is aged 42 and so is fighting for a future pension, argued in court that this system discriminated against her and breaches her human rights.
She initially won her case in the High Court in Northern Ireland, where a judge said that it was “irrational and disproportionate to impose a disqualifying hurdle of this kind”.
However, that decision was then overturned in the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland before the case headed to the UK Supreme Court for a final decision.
Five Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled she is entitled to receive payments under the pension scheme.
The result could have implications for the rights of co-habiting couples working in the public sector – including nurses, teachers, civil servants and police, although the local government scheme in England and Wales has already been changed.
They could change their rules so unmarried couples automatically benefit from survivor’s pensions without being opted in. They would still have to prove that, as a couple, they had been together for two years and were financially interdependent – such as having a joint bank account.
However, it is still unclear whether this would lead to any retrospective change in the rules. This is likely to be dependant on another court hearing.
Source: BBC News – Northern Ireland