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High Court decides different treatment of terminally ill claimants is discriminatory

The High Court in Northern Ireland has ruled that the different treatment of social security benefit claimants with a terminal illness is “manifestly without reasonable foundation”. In a decision handed down by Mr Justice McAlinden, the difference in treatment for terminally ill claimants who cannot reasonably meet the six month criterion was deemed to be discriminatory.

Lorraine Cox, who was diagnosed with the terminal illness of motor neurone disease, took the challenge forward after being refused access to special rules for terminal illness because she could not demonstrate her death was reasonably expected within six months. Lorraine was assisted by Law Centre NI, with support from The PILS Project. The special rules for terminal illness allow terminally ill claimants fast tracked access to benefits without the need for additional assessment and conditionality.

In his decision, Mr Justice McAlinden states that:

It is hard to imagine a more devastating diagnosis for a single mother of three young children. This illness is a progressive neurological condition for which there is no effective treatment or cure. The progression of the illness is unpredictable but it would seem that 50% of those individuals diagnosed with the condition die within three years of diagnosis…

I have carefully analysed all the evidence put forward by the respondents in order to evaluate their arguments in relation to justification and I can find nothing to justify or indeed explain why those individuals who have a terminal diagnosis but are not expected to die within six months and those individuals with a terminal diagnosis and who are reasonably expected to die within six months but who survive beyond that six month period are treated differently…

This difference in treatment is manifestly without reasonable justification and is, therefore, in breach of Article 14 ECHR in conjunction with Article 8 and Article 1 of Protocol 1.

Law Centre NI legal officer Owen McCloskey said: “This is a hugely important decision that will have implications for terminally ill claimants across the UK.

“The pressure to scrap the six month rule has been growing for a long time now, with campaigners highlighting the additional pain and stress many claimants are forced to endure because of it. This judgement makes clear that the current different treatment of different groups of terminally ill claimants is discriminatory and in breach of our client’s human rights.”

Lorraine Cox said: “I have been clear from the outset in taking this challenge forward that what I and others have had to go through is unfair. At a time when I should have been focusing on spending the remainder of my life with my family and friends, I have instead had to go through this ordeal.

“I feel my decision has been justified and I hope not a single person has to go through the same experience again. I hope the six month rule can now be scrapped as quickly as possible to ensure that is the case.”


Further information

  • The decision in full can be downloaded below.
  • The Public Interest Litigation Support (PILS) Project use the law strategically to improve human rights and equality in Northern Ireland. The project was set up in 2009 to support the use of public interest litigation: