Unmarried woman wins legal fight on bereavement damages
NHS worker Jakki Smith from Chorley, Lancashire, was with her partner John Bulloch for 16 years before he passed away in 2011 aged 66. John underwent the removal of a benign tumour on his right foot and suffered an infection which was missed by medical staff. When Jakki looked into being awarded bereavement damages she was told that a fixed sum of £12,980 is usually paid out if a person dies as a result of negligence, but only to spouses or civil partners.
As Jakki and John were never married Jakki took the government to court for breaching her human rights in denying her bereavement damages. After being unsuccessful at trial she appealed her case. The Court of Appeal allowed her challenge against a High Court ruling dismissing her claim. On appeal her legal team argued that the current legislation was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court of Appeal agreed and awarded the bereavement damages to Jakki. Despite the fact she is unlikely to get any money from the decision as there is little possibility of a retrospective payment, Jakki is pleased with the result. She said:
“Nothing will bring John back, but he was a firm believer in everyone being treated equally and I think he would have agreed with me that this is worth fighting for. Just because John and I hadn’t said vows to each other and didn’t wear wedding rings didn’t mean we weren’t completely committed to each other. My fight has never been for the money, it’s about having meaningful relationships recognised. I just hope what has happened helps other people who may find themselves in this tragic situation.”
The Law Commission has previously recommended co-habiting couples should be eligible for bereavement damages and the government also produced draft bill in 2009. However, it was never progressed. Still, this case gives more fuel to the countless number of people campaigning for fairer rights for cohabiting couples in the UK.
Amanda Erskine is a solicitor in the Family department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors.