As the law currently stands in England, a fixed sum of £12,980 is awarded for bereavement damages if a spouse or civil partner dies as a result of negligence. The bereavement award cannot be claimed by cohabiting couples, even if they have been in a longstanding relationship.
In a recent case (Smith v. Secretary of State for Justice) Jakki Smith was denied an award for bereavement damages following the death of her partner, John Bulloch, who she had been in a relationship with for 16 years. If Jakki was married to John, she would have been entitled to an award of bereavement damages for John’s negligent death. Because Jakki cohabitated with John, she was not entitled to an award.
Jakki called for the law to recognise that society has moved on and stated that cohabiting couples should be treated equally to spouses and civil partners. Jakki alleged that her non-entitlement to an award was in breach of her human rights, namely her non marital status and her right to respect for family life. Jakki said, “John and I had simply decided that getting married wasn’t for us. Until John died I hadn’t realised that our relationship would be treated any differently and when I did it just struck me as hurtful and unfair that it could be considered less meaningful.”
The High Court held that there was no incompatibility between the law on bereavement damages and Jakki’s human rights and dismissed her claim. Jakki appealed the decision and stated “I felt they were saying: ‘You weren’t married, you weren’t bereaved, it didn’t count. The fact that our bond wasn’t recognised, simply because we hadn’t chosen to marry, was very upsetting.”
The Court of Appeal dismissed the decision of the High Court stating that there was no real justification to discriminate against cohabitees and that the law as it currently stands is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court of Appeal’s decision said the award should be given to anyone who has been in a relationship for at least two years at the point of a negligent death.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice stated “we have noted the judgment and are considering it carefully”. This landmark decision should hopefully prompt a change in the law enabling cohabiting partners, of two years or more, to be awarded bereavement damages when their partner dies as a result of negligence. This decision is a positive one for cohabitees who have partners suffering from terminal asbestos related diseases. If the law in this area does change, it will enable cohabitees who lose their partners due to negligent asbestos exposure to be entitled to claim a bereavement damages award in the sum of £12,980.