Bereavement damages are currently only available to a husband, wife or civil partner of a person who has died, or to the parents of the deceased if they were a minor. That means that unmarried couples who live together (called cohabiting partners) cannot claim for bereavement damages if their partner has died because of the actions of someone else.
However, society is changing and cohabitation is becoming much more common. In fact, the cohabiting couple family has been the fastest growing family type over the last two decades, doubling from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017. The UK government has therefore proposed changing the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 to reflect this change.
What Changes are Being Proposed?
Under the proposed new system, bereavement damages will be available to claimants who cohabited with the deceased person for at least 2 years immediately prior to the death. The government also wants to ensure that if the deceased was still married and not yet divorced or separated, but had been cohabiting with another partner for 2 years or longer, then damages should be split equally between the eligible claimants.
Why Has this Happened?
The government’s decision follows a landmark ruling by the Court of Appeal in the case of Jacqueline Smith vs Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Ms Smith had lived with her partner John Bulloch for more than a decade until he died as a result of medical negligence.
But because they weren’t married, she wasn’t entitled to claim bereavement damages following his death. Ms Smith argued that this breached her human rights and discriminated against her on the grounds of her marital status, as she believed her relationship was equal to any marriage when it came to their mutual love and commitment.
The High Court dismissed her claim, but an appeal was granted, and in late 2017, the Court of Appeal ruled that cohabiting couples should be able to claim bereavement damages, just as a spouse or civil partner can. The government therefore wants to amend the Fatal Accidents Act to implement this judgement and address the incompatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights.
How Much is a Bereavement Award?
Bereavement awards allow a flat rate of £12,980 to be paid to a husband, wife or civil partner of the deceased, or a parent if the child was under 18. The government acknowledges that a bereavement damages award is “token in nature”, since it cannot make up for the real-world loss of a loved one. Instead, it is designed to reflect the emotional trauma a person experiences following a violent crime or fatal accident.
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