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Family challenges refusal to award bereavement payments

The family of a woman who was severely disabled due to a progressive degenerative condition is challenging the decision to refuse bereavement payments. The case is being considered by the court of appeal to decide whether the refusal discriminated on the grounds of disability.

The initial award was refused on the grounds that Mrs Pauline O’Donnell, who sadly died in 2017, had not paid necessary contributions. Pauline was severely disabled from an early age and unable to work to fulfil the contribution requirements.

Pauline’s husband, Mr Michael O’Donnell, who is appealing the decision, said: “After Pauline’s death I couldn’t afford to do things with the kids to take their mind off what had happened. I still owe money for the funeral costs. Our income as a household had massively decreased. There have been days when we scraped together food or couldn’t afford to heat the house. It all really took a toll on me and the family.

“I have been so involved in the whole process of appealing the decision that I feel guilty I didn’t give enough time to my kids, all I have left of Pauline, besides my memories.”

Law Centre NI legal officer, Owen McCloskey, added: “Pauline’s family should have been grieving after she died. Instead, they found themselves battling for entitlement to bereavement support payment.

“It is clear that Pauline’s family were let down at a time when they needed help. The award was refused because Pauline had not paid necessary contributions, but she was unable to work to pay these due to her severe disability.

“We are representing Pauline’s husband, Michael, in this challenge, to find out whether the department acted lawfully, or whether it amounted to discrimination on the grounds of disability.

“I would like to thank Michael and his family for their bravery in taking this challenge forward, in the hope that others don’t have to go through a similar experience in the future.”

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 married in 1995. Pauline was unable 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 appealing the decision not to award the family bereavement support.

Further information

  • The case is O’Donnell v Dept for Communities 19/53072.
  • On 22 February 2019 the tribunal referred the following question to the court of appeal under Sch.10, Para 8 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:
  • The court of appeal will consider the following:

Are the provisions of sections 29 and 30(1)-(3) of the Pensions Act (NI) 2015 incompatible with Arts.8, 14 and Protocol 1: Article 1 of the European convention on human rights, as provided by the first Schedule to the Human Rights Act 1998?

Are the provisions of sections 29 and 30(1)-(3) of the Pensions Act (NI) 2015 (“the 2015 Act”) compatible with Art.14 in conjunction with Art.8 and/or Art.1 Protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights (given effect by the Human Rights Act 1998) on grounds of disability discrimination?

Was the department’s refusal of the appellant’s application for bereavement support payment in breach of Art.14 in conjunction with Art.8 and/or Art.1 Protocol 1 ECHR on grounds of disability discrimination?

This is the third recent challenge to government bereavement payments following the challenge to widowed parents’ allowance (WPA) in Re McLaughlin’s Application [2018] UKSC 48 and the challenge to bereavement support payment in Jackson & Others v SSWP CO/975/2019. Both of these cases related to the requirement to be married or in a civil partnership in order to claim the benefit.