Woman wins Supreme Court backing over late partner's pension

A woman who was denied payments from her late long-term partner's occupational pension has won a landmark Supreme Court appeal which could affect millions of other cohabitees across the UK.

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.

The scheme said it had not received a nomination form from McMullan while he was alive and could not pay Brewster the pension.

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.

However, Ms Brewster was denied a survivor's pension by the administrators of the scheme on the ground that she and Mr McMullan had been cohabiting and were not married.

"NILGOSC is grateful to the Supreme Court for its decision in this case and the clarity it has provided on the important issues raised. We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in today, and not the world of fifty years ago".

Steve Webb, Director of Policy at Royal London and former pensions minister, commented: "This is a very welcome ruling".

Ms Brewster said that it was her understanding that her partner had completed a form nominating her to be eligible for a survivor's pension.

Lord Kerr said that the legislation involved, the Local Government Pension Scheme (Benefits, Membership and Contributions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009, must have been created to "remove the difference in treatment between a long-standing cohabitant and a married or civil partner of a scheme member". They must also show they have lived together for two years before the date the nomination form was submitted to the pension scheme and two years before the date of death.

Helen Mountfield QC, representing Ms Brewster, had asked the Supreme Court to declare that the opt-in nomination rule breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

"NILGOSC will take all necessary steps to comply with the Court's direction regarding the payment of a pension to Ms Brewster as quickly as possible".

These prohibit discrimination in the way human rights are applied and also protect a person's right to property and the peaceful enjoyment of possessions.

Nurses, teachers, civil servants, police and fire officers all have to fill in a nomination form if they want their partners to share in their pension if they die.

The Court ruling stated: "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 can not be justified".

'To suggest that, in furtherance of that objective, a requirement that the surviving cohabitant must be nominated by the scheme member justified the limitation of the appellant's Article 14 right, is, at least, highly questionable'.

The decision provided by the UK Supreme Court could have implications for the rights of cohabiting couples working in the public sector.