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Bereavement Damages and Unmarried Partners – High Court Urges Reform

It is vital that the law keeps up with the speed of social change and, in one important case, the High Court has urged Parliament to bring about reform so that unmarried partners of those who lose their lives as a result of negligence can be properly compensated for their bereavement.

The Fatal Accidents Act 1976 enables a lump sum – currently £12,980 – to be paid in bereavement damages to spouses or civil partners of deceased negligence victims. However, such awards are not available to cohabitees and the provision has long been the subject of widespread criticism.

The issue arose in the case of a woman whose partner of 16 years died from an infection as a result of admitted clinical negligence. The NHS had settled her compensation claim on the basis that they had lived together for more than two years and that she was dependent on him. However, bereavement damages were not available to her as she and the deceased never married.

Her lawyers argued that that position discriminated against unmarried couples and violated her right to respect for her private and family life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Fighting her case on a point of principle, she sought symbolic recognition that her relationship was equal in every respect to a marriage in terms of love, loyalty and commitment.

In rejecting her arguments, however, the Court noted that, although marriage is not as popular as it once was, legislators have repeatedly recognised its continued importance. The denial of bereavement damages did not imply that the grief she felt after her partner’s death was less valued by the state than would have been case had she been married. It did not express disapproval of her decision not to marry and the relatively modest sum at stake did not in any event cross the threshold of seriousness to engage her rights under Article 8.

The Court nevertheless expressed the hope that the outcome of the case would provoke further discussion in Parliament with a view to improving the current state of the law on the issue. A provision to grant unmarried partners a right to bereavement damages would be short, probably uncontroversial, and would involve very limited additional expenditure.

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