Supreme Court pension ruling ‘sends strong message’

Tom Ellis writes

The UK’s Supreme Court has ruled an unmarried cohabitant partner was entitled to receive a survivor’s pension – a decision that could have a significant effect on the rules of pension schemes across the country.

The case considered Denise Brewster, whose partner of 10 years William McMullan died on Boxing Day in 2009, two days after proposing to her. McMullan was employed by Translink, a public transport operator in Northern Ireland, for approximately 15 years and paid into the Local Government Pension Scheme throughout his term of employment.

Brewster said she believed her partner filled in a form nominating her to be eligible for a survivor’s pension, but the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee, which administers the scheme, said it did not receive any such form.

Those in English and Welsh local schemes, which have already changed their rules regarding this procedure, do not have to nominate a partner to receive benefits but simply prove they were living together as if they were married, according to trade union UNISON.

Even so, Royal London director of policy Steve Webb argued the ruling sent “a very strong signal” to pension schemes across the UK.

He said: “It’s UK-wide because it’s the Supreme Court and, without being too legalistic and precise about it, it’s sent a very strong signal to any pension scheme that has different processes, different hurdles that co-habiting couples have to jump through that they would be very vulnerable to legal challenge.”

The judgement, unanimously supported by the Court and delivered by Lord Kerr, said: “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 cannot be justified.”

In welcoming the ruling, ex-pensions minister Webb added it was “totally unacceptable for cohabiting couples to be treated as second-class citizens”.

He continued: “It would be nice to think it [the ruling] would go much further and every scheme in the land would look at every rule that may apply differently to cohabiting couples, but I don’t think we’re there. Every scheme has got to look pretty hard at whether it’s treating people procedurally, at the very least, the same.”