Bereaved woman wins rights for cohabiting couples

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Nov 29, 2017
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Jakki Smith’s partner, John Bulloch, died in 2011 after an infection was missed

Slater & Gordon/PA

A woman has won her landmark battle for greater legal recognition for unmarried couples who suffer bereavement.

Jakki Smith, whose partner of 16 years died in 2011, argued in the Court of Appeal that her inability to claim bereavement damages was a breach of her human rights. 

The 59-year-old NHS worker from Chorley, Lancashire, discovered she was not entitled to damages of £11,800 when John Bulloch, who was 66, died after an infection was missed. The damages are paid to to spouses or civil partners if a person dies as a result of negligence.

Bulloch, a former prison governor, had a benign tumour on his right foot removed in August 2011 and became ill while on holiday in Turkey. Yesterday the Court of Appeal allowed Smith’s challenge against a High Court ruling dismissing her claim, in a ruling hailed as “historic”.

Zak Golombeck, of the law firm Slater & Gordon, who represented Smith, said: “This is a historic decision, and one that is long overdue. The Law Commission has previously recommended that cohabiting couples should be eligible for bereavement damages. Significantly, the government also produced a draft Bill in 2009, although it was never progressed.

“The way we live is changing. Couples are choosing not to marry but this does not detract from the bond they have.”

Smith had argued that her exclusion from those entitled to make such a claim discriminated against her unlawfully on the ground of her status as an unmarried person. Last year, Mr Justice Edis ruled in the High Court that there was no incompatibility between the 1976 Fatal Accidents Act and the European Convention on Human Rights and said he had no power to intervene, although he added that the current law was in need of reform.

Smith’s QC, Vikram Sachdeva of 39 Essex Chambers in London, told the Court of Appeal that the judge’s conclusion was “clearly reached with regret”. He told the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, sitting with Lord Justice McCombe and Lord Justice Elias that it was implicitly conceded that there was no lawful justification for withholding bereavement damages from people who had lived with their partners for at least two years.

That was consistent with the 2009 government’s intention to amend the law, with the only reason given why the 2011 government did not bring the draft bill into force being that it was not a key priority.

Yesterday the Court of Appeal judges set aside the ruling by Mr Justice Edis last year. Their decision coincides with the recently-launched campaign by [itals] The Times, with the charity Marriage Foundation, for reform of family laws, including some legal rights for unmarried couples.

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