Court of Appeal allows future bereavement damages payments for unmarried partners

Posted Jan 11, 2018.
In what has been described as a historic and long overdue decision, the Court of Appeal recently allowed an unmarried woman to be awarded bereavement damages that previously had only been available to married couples.

Jakki Smith had been in living with her partner John for 16 years up until 2011, when he tragically died following an infection that had spread to his brain, an infection that had been missed by the doctors treating him. It was only after his death that Jakki realised that the statutory bereavement award of £12,980 was only available to couples who are legally married or in a civil partnership. Ms Smiths solicitors were successful in their argument that the current UK legislation in this area constituted a breach of her Human Rights under the European Convention. As the payment cannot be made retrospectively, she will unfortunately not receive any money as a result of this decision. Ms Smiths solicitor Zac Golombeck said:

“The Court of Appeal has made clear in its judgement that Jakki and John’s relationship was equal in every respect to a marriage in terms of love, loyalty and commitment...we hope that Parliament will now rectify the incompatibility and bring this legislation into the 21st century”

Since their introduction in 1982, there have been numerous calls for reforms to bereavement damages. Following a 1999 Law Commission report and consultation, 80% of respondents from the legal profession were in favour of extending bereavement damages to couples living together, with a suggestion that an initial qualifying period of two years of co-habitation would apply, bringing the law in line with that relating to dependents. A similar set of proposals in 2009, culminating in the Civil Law Reform Bill, were ultimately dropped by Parliament. More recently, a review of bereavement damages was included in the 2015 Negligence and Damages Bill, which seems to have been dropped following its second reading in 2016. It is hoped that the current Cohabitation Rights Bill, which is at its second stage reading in the Lords, will ultimately formalise these changes.