Bereavement compensation: new rights for unmarried couples

22nd September 2020 Clinical Negligence

Over the last 10 years, the number of couples choosing to live together without marrying has grown significantly. In 2019, of 19.2 million families in the UK, 3.5 million of these were cohabiting couples, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Despite this, for many years the law has reserved a key right known as a ‘bereavement award’ to those who were married or in a civil partnership. However, on 6 October 2020, a long-awaited change to the law will take place to recognise loss in unmarried couples.

For deaths caused by medical negligence, the law recognises the loss of a loved one with a type of compensation known as a ‘bereavement award’.

Currently this is fixed at £15,120 and is in addition to any compensation awarded to help to cover the financial contribution the deceased spouse made to responsibilities such as mortgages. Limiting the bereavement award to only husbands, wives or civil partners has for years caused injustice to those in long-term meaningful partnerships who were unmarried.

Jakki Smith and John Bullock were one of these couples, having been together for 16 years. In 2011 Jakki, an NHS worker from Chorley, lost John after an infection he suffered was missed by doctors. When Jakki learned she was not entitled to the bereavement award, she wanted to help unmarried couples in the future who found themselves in the same circumstances. Jakki and her lawyers launched a legal battle arguing that the law was in breach of her human rights.

In 2017 Jakki won this fight. The Ministry of Justice has now confirmed that from 06 October 2020, cohabiting partners will be entitled to the bereavement award as long as the couple lived together for at least two years prior to the death.

Of course, no amount of money can ever compensate for such loss. My clients often say that the main purpose of bringing their legal claim is not financial compensation. They want the loss of life of the person they loved to be recognised and acknowledged by those responsible. I hope that this long overdue change in the law will provide much deserved recognition of the loss of meaningful relationships between unmarried couples.


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Ellen Driscoll is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Clinical Negligence department

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