Northern Ireland woman wins landmark pension case

A Northern Ireland woman has won a landmark legal case that could have significant impact on the rights afforded to cohabiting couples.

Denise Brewster lived with her partner Lenny McMullan for 10 years in their own home. The couple got engaged in December 2009 but Mr McMullan died two days later. He was an employee of Translink and had been paying into an occupational pension scheme. Denise Brewster was denied payments from the occupational pension, because unmarried employees were required to complete a nomination form if they wanted their partner to receive a survivor's allowance. Married couples are not required to complete such a form, and the spouse automatically receives an allowance.

Ms Brewster alleged that the pension rules were discriminatory and breached her human rights, and took her case through the courts. The High Court in Northern Ireland had ruled in her favour but the decision was overturned in the Court of Appeal. The highest court in the UK, the Supreme Court, ruled unanimously that the need to complete the nomination form was "unlawful discrimination".

The case could have serious implications for the rights of co-habiting couples working in the public sector - the nomination forms aren't as common in private sector pension schemes. It is expected that more legal challenges will follow as a result, and that co-habiting couples will continue the fight for more rights when it comes to other forms of tax.