Supreme Court rules on disputed pension rights for partner

A woman whose long-term partner died suddenly has won a legal battle which could change the pension rights of unmarried couples working in the public sector

Denise Brewster was denied payments from her late partner’s occupational pension since he had not signed the appropriate paperwork authorising her as beneficiary for his pension. She argued that she was the victim of ‘serious discrimination’ and has now won her case at the Supreme Court.

The case could lead pension schemes to change their rules.

Brewster, a lifeguard from Coleraine, and her partner Lenny McMullan lived together for 10 years and owned their own home. In 2009, the couple got engaged, but McMullan suddenly died two days later.

At the time of his death, McMullan had worked for Translink, Northern Ireland’s public transport provider, for 15 years. He paid into an occupational pension scheme administered by Northern Ireland Local Government Officers' Superannuation Committee (NILGOSC).

If they had been married, Brewster would automatically have shared the pension McMullan had accrued. Co-habiting partners instead had to complete a form nominating their partner, and while Brewster believed it had been, NILGOSC maintained it had not.

She won her case in the High Court in Northern Ireland, before the decision was overturned at the Court of Appeal.

Five Supreme Court judges unanimously ruled in Brewster’s favour, describing the nomination form as ‘unlawful discrimination’.

Brewster’s solicitor, Gareth Mitchell of public law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn said: ‘Denying bereaved cohabitees access to survivor pensions causes huge distress and financial hardship. Now that around one in six families in the UK are cohabiting families, reform is long overdue.

‘The decision has significant implications for millions of cohabitees in relation to pension benefits. It also lays down the approach to be adopted when considering complaints of discrimination on the grounds of marital status in other areas.’

The nomination rule which the Supreme Court has declared was unlawful is found in most of the UK’s public sector pension schemes, of which there are around 12 million members. It is also found in many defined benefit pension schemes in the private sector, of which there are around 11 million members.

The Supreme Court judgment can be read here.

Calum Fuller |Assistant editor, Accountancy magazine (up to 2018)

Calum Fuller is former assistant editor of Accountancy magazine and Accountancy Daily, published by ...

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