Unmarried woman takes up legal fight to have Bereavement Damages awarded to her

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Recently the arguable shortcomings of bereavement damages have once again been brought into question when a woman has commenced court proceedings against the government to court for a breach of her human rights, in being denied bereavement damages. When her partner of 16 years died in 2011 she discovered, despite their long-lasting and serious relationship, she was not entitled to bereavement damages on the basis of them not being married.

Presently, bereavement damages amount to £12,980.00, payable by a Defendant if their negligent act leads to a person’s death. However, at present, only certain people currently qualify to pursue a bereavement award. Section 1A (2) of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 sets out that

“A claim for damages for bereavement shall only be for the benefit – (a) of the wife or husband [or civil partner] of the deceased; and (b) where the deceased was a minor who never married (i) of his parents, if he was legitimate; and (ii) of his mother, if he was illegitimate.”

There have been ongoing criticisms concerning bereavement damages, particularly regarding firstly, the seemingly low sum, and secondly, the limited eligibility of it. The Pearson Royal Commission in 1978 criticised the restrictive classes of eligible claimants. In addition the Law Commission published the paper “Claims for Wrongful Death” in 1999 which recommended extending eligible claimants to include parents of deceased children, siblings, and long-term partners. The paper also suggested an uplift in the quantum award for bereavement.

Although there have been no developments presently, a number of people have argued that the legislation is in need of consideration to reflect the social changes with regards to marriage, namely that marriage rates are declining and marriage has become less of a requisite for long-term partners. Further it has been suggested that reform is necessary for the quantum to reflect inflation, with there having been no increase (save for the 10% general increase to all general damages in April 2013 in light of the LASPO reforms) in the same for the last 8 years and with other home nations having already increased the award (for example Northern Ireland have announced that they will be increasing such awards to £14,400.00 and the Scottish tariff system already provides for some awards to potentially exceed £80,000.00). There have also been observations that many consider the sum to not currently reflect the significant grief and emotional distress at losing such a loved one.

There are no current proposals to review the law; however the success or failings of the prospective case could potentially lead to further discussion and potential reform.

Authors: James Braund & Nischa Allen