Gay couples win equal pension rights

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Jul 13, 2017
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John Walker went to the Supreme Court so that his husband would be allowed to benefit from a pension built up before civil partnerships were introduced

David Mirzoeff/PA

A gay man has won a landmark battle in the UK’s highest court to secure his husband the same pension rights that a wife would enjoy.

John Walker, 66, an ex-cavalry officer, was in the Supreme Court in London to hear five judges unanimously allow his appeal in a decision that will help thousands of same-sex couples. Walker had lost in the Court of Appeal in 2015, when judges ruled that his claim failed because it applied to a period before civil partnerships were recognised by the law. Yesterday, the Supreme Court judges overturned that decision and ruled that Walker’s husband would be entitled to a spouse’s pension, provided that they remained married.

Walker took the legal action because he wanted to ensure that his husband would be provided for should he die first.

A government spokesman said: “We are reviewing the implications of this judgment in detail and will respond in due course. The rights of same sex couples have been transformed for the better since 2010, including the introduction of same sex marriage and legislation to ensure that pensions are built up equally for all legal partnerships.”

At the Supreme Court hearing in March, Jason Coppel, QC, of 11KBW chambers, for the work and pensions secretary, said that the costs involved in “requiring all pension schemes to equalise entitlements retrospectively” would be £100 million for private sector schemes and a further £20 million for public sector schemes. However, some estimates have put the cost to the pensions industry at more than £3 billion.

It is not known how many couples might benefit, particularly as some may be in private same-sex relationships. However, it is thought to be more than 10,000.

Emma Norton, a lawyer with Liberty, the civil rights campaigning group that backed Walker’s action, commented: “This ruling was made under EU law and is a direct consequence of the rights protection the EU gives us. We now risk losing that protection. The government must promise that there will be no rollback on LGBT rights after Brexit and commit to fully protecting them in UK law.”

Liberty said that Walker’s case had challenged “an exemption in the Equality Act that lets employers exclude same-sex partners from spousal benefits paid into a pension fund before December 2005, when civil partnerships became legal”.

Legal commentators raised further potential ramifications. “It will be interesting to see whether this ruling will apply to deceased civil partners/same-sex married couples,” said Nicola Stone, a lawyer at the London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen. “If this is the case then there may be a number of individuals who will be entitled to be a retrospective payment of pension benefits.”

In their ruling the Supreme Court justices, led by the court’s deputy president Baroness Hale of Richmond, made a declaration that the exemption under the 2010 Act was “incompatible with EU law and must be disapplied”. The other justices sitting were Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore, Lord Reed, Lord Carnwath of Notting Hill and Lord Hughes.

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