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The law often lags behind when it comes to keeping up with the speed of social change, as was illustrated by a recent case in which the High Court urged Parliament to bring about reform so that unmarried partners of those who lose their lives as a result of negligence can be properly compensated for their bereavement.
The Fatal Accidents Act 1976 requires a lump sum – currently fixed at £12,980 – to be paid in bereavement damages to spouses or civil partners of those who have died owing to the negligence of someone else. However, no such award is available to unmarried partners in such circumstances. This has long been the subject of widespread criticism.
The subject came up in the case of a woman whose partner of 16 years died from an infection as a result of clinical negligence. The NHS had settled her compensation claim on the basis that the couple had lived together for more than two years and that she was therefore entitled to dependency damages. However, bereavement damages were not available to her as she and the deceased had never married.
The woman argued that the law as it stands discriminated against her on the ground of her status as an unmarried person and violated her right to respect for her private and family life, as enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In rejecting her arguments, however, the Court noted that, although marriage is not as popular as it once was, legislators have repeatedly recognised its continued importance. The denial of bereavement damages did not imply that the grief she felt after the death of her partner was less valued by the state than would have been the case had she been married. It did not express disapproval of her decision not to marry, and the relatively modest sum at stake did not in any event cross the threshold of seriousness to engage her rights under Article 8.
The Court nevertheless expressed the hope that the outcome of the case would provoke further discussion in Parliament with a view to bringing about a change in the law on this issue.