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Court of Appeal rules in favour of family denied Bereavement Support Payment

Law Centre NI has successfully challenged the decision to withhold bereavement support payment to the family of a woman who was severely disabled due to a progressive degenerative condition.

Mrs Pauline O’Donnell sadly died in 2017 leaving a young family. Her husband, Michael, made a claim for bereavement support and was refused on the grounds that the benefit could not be paid in circumstances where the deceased had not paid national insurance contributions. Mrs O’Donnell had not paid the necessary contributions because, having been severely disabled from an early age, she had never been able to work and fulfil the contribution requirements.

The Court of Appeal ruled that current arrangements discriminate by treating the family of a deceased person who was never able to work the same as a family of a deceased person who chose not to work.

Pauline’s husband, Mr Michael O’Donnell, said: “I feel a great sense of relief and vindication with this decision. Benefits are supposed to help people in times of greatest need. Instead our family didn”t receive the support we needed because Pauline had never been able to work due to her disability.

“The award of bereavement support would have gone a long way to helping our family cope with the financial position we were in shortly after her passing. Instead we were crippled with debt, struggling to cope with the drop in our household income and at times not able to afford food and heating. We had to deal with all this at a very difficult time for me and the kids, along with the additional stress of appealing the decision.”

Law Centre NI legal officer, Owen McCloskey, added: “We are very pleased that the Court of Appeal has come to this decision. It was clear that Pauline was never able to work due to her severe disability. The refusal to award bereavement support payment discriminated against families in situations like this one.

“The decision confirms that the requirement for those who can never work to have paid contributions as a condition of entitlement to this benefit is unlawful. This is a significant decision which draws upon international standards to prevent unlawful discrimination and to protect the rights of disabled people and their families. The judgement potentially has wider implications beyond Northern Ireland for the whole of the UK.

I want to acknowledge the courage of Mr O’Donnell and his family for taking this case forward to clarify the law for others. We hope no other family has to go through anything similar again.”

Pauline and Michael’s Story

Pauline was diagnosed with Friedreich’s Ataxia, a progressive degenerative disorder, from around the age of twelve. She met Michael when they were a young age and were married in 1995. Pauline was never able to work due to her severe disability. Her condition declined over the years and Michael gave up work to care for his wife and children.

Pauline sadly died on 31 July 2017, leaving Michael and their four children behind. Michael has since struggled emotionally and financially looking after the family and he appealed the decision not to award the family bereavement support payment in 2017.

Further Notes:

  • A copy of the full judgment can be found here.
  • The judicial communications office release can be found here.
  • This is a further successful challenge to the UK government’s bereavement support payment benefit, following Jackson & Others v SSWP CO/975/2019. It also follows the successful challenge to the previous bereavement benefit, widowed parent’s allowance, in McLaughlin’s Application [2018] UKSC 48.
  • The case will now be sent back to tribunal for a final decision on the award.