ECHR upholds Lords’ decision to refuse widow’s benefit to widowers

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has upheld a House of Lords ruling that the UK Government did not act unlawfully by refusing to pay widows’ benefits to two widowers.

George Runkee and Brian White had applied for a definitive answer as to whether husbands could receive the equivalent of widows’ benefits.

The widowers’ claim came following the Lords ruling in R (Hooper & Ors) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (2005).

If the claimants had been widows they would have been entitled to claim widow’s payment under Section 36 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992; widowed mother’s allowance under Section 37; and widow’s pension under Section 38.

Runkee’s and White’s counsel submitted to the Strasbourg court that the claimants would be entitled to a payout if they were women. They argued that, by denying the benefits, the Secretary of State had acted in a way that was incompatible with their rights in relation to discrimination and the right to a family life under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The claimants said the Secretary of State should have used his common law powers to enforce equality on this matter.

The House of Lords, however, ruled that Parliament’s position was unambiguous and that the law should relate to widows alone, therefore the Government would have gone beyond its powers to use common law. The ECHR concurred with the Lords and dismissed the appeal on the grounds that the 1992 act was compatible with the convention.

Christopher Whomersley from the legal department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office instructed Philip Sales QC of 11 King’s Bench Walk and Jemima Stratford of Brick Court Chambers against Runkee and White.

The two widowers taking the case forward to the ECHR both had dependent children, therefore the Child Poverty Action Group took forward the action in relation to Section 37. Dinah Rose of Blackstone Chambers was instructed by Child Poverty legal officer Stewart Wright.