Cohabiting partner wins landmark Supreme Court pension victory

Denise Brewster from Coleraine was denied payments from her late long term partner’s occupational pension, known as a survivor’s pension, from Translink as the couple were unmarried although she would have qualified automatically had the couple been married. Ms Brewster and her late partner lived together for ten years and owned a home together.

The pension scheme was a local government pension scheme which is governed by rules made under the Local Government Pension Scheme (Benefits, Memberships and Contributions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009. Under the regulations, married partners automatically obtain a survivor’s pension but unmarried partners only receive a pension if there has been compliance with an opt-in requirement which involves the pension scheme member nominating their partner for payments. A nomination declaration, signed by both partners must be lodged with the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee (Nilgosc). In this case, even though Ms Brewster met all other criteria and believed this had been done, the Committee had not received the nomination form.

Counsel on behalf of Ms Brewster asked the Court to declare that the opt-in nomination rule in the 2009 Regulations breached Article 1 and Article 14 of the First Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 1 protects enjoyment of property/possessions and Article 14 prohibits discrimination in the way that human rights laws are applied. Therefore the Court was being asked to declare that cohabiting partners were being discriminated against, compared with spouses.

The Supreme Court found that Ms Brewster is entitled to receive payments under the scheme and that the opt-in form constitutes unlawful discrimination. The ruling could affect millions of cohabiting partners in relation to pension benefits and it likely to improve the pension rights of unmarried couples in the public sector. It is unclear at present whether this will lead to a retrospective change in the rules. The decision also potentially lays down guidelines on the approach to be adopted when considering complaints on the grounds of marital status in other areas as well.

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