NI: Court of Appeal rules in favour of family in 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.

Throughout her working life, Pauline O’Donnell had been unable to work due to severe congenital disabilities and could therefore not make any national insurance contribution. She passed away in 2017.

Her husband, Michael O’Donnell, made a claim for bereavement support which was declined by the Department for Communities on the basis that Mrs O’Donnell had not paid enough national insurance contributions.

Mr O’Donnell appealed this decision claiming that it was unjustifiable discriminatory treatment to expect class 1 and class 2 national insurance contributions to have been paid by Mrs O’Donnell given her disabilities preventing her from working.

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. The Court interpreted section (30)(3) of the Pensions Act (NI) 2015 to enable those who were never able to work to be treated as thought they had met the paid contribution requirement.

The case will now be sent back to the Tribunal for a final decision on the award.

Law Centre NI legal officer, Owen McCloskey, said: “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.”

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