Supporting families through a dark time

Monday, August 17th 2020

Distressed

Law Centre NI successfully challenged a decision to refuse bereavement support payment to the family of a severely disabled woman, also requiring benefits rules to be reviewed in this light.

Pauline O’Donnell had been unable to work throughout her life due to severe congenital disabilities. At the age of about twelve, she was diagnosed with Friedreich’s Ataxia, a progressive degenerative disorder. As a result of this, she had never been able to work and therefore never made national insurance contributions. Sadly, in 2017 she passed away leaving four children and her husband, Michael.

Michael claimed bereavement support but was refused on the basis that Pauline had not fulfilled the national insurance contribution requirements. This left Michael struggling both emotionally and financially to look after his family.

Michael, said:

“After Pauline’s death I couldn’t afford to do things with the kids to take their mind off what had happened. I still owe money for the funeral costs…our income as a household had massively decreased. There have been days when we scraped together food or couldn’t afford to heat the house. It all really took a toll on me and the family.”

With the help of Law Centre NI, Michael challenged this decision, arguing that it discriminated  against Pauline to expect her to have paid national insurance contributions given that her not working was determined by her disability and not a matter of choice.  

The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland upheld this appeal and found that the current requirements discriminated against the family as the government had failed to justify the similarity in treatment of those with and without severe disabilities. The Court stated that the:

“Deceased, who as a result of disability could not work and could never meet the contribution condition, was treated in exactly the same way as an individual who could work and who could meet the contribution condition but did not do so."

Michael responded:

“I feel a great sense of relief and vindication with this decision. Benefits are supposed to help people in times of greatest need. Instead our family didn’t receive the support we needed because Pauline had never been able to work due to her disability… The award of bereavement support would have gone a long way to helping our family cope with the financial position we were in shortly after her passing. Instead we were crippled with debt, struggling to cope with the drop in our household income and at times not able to afford food and heating. We had to deal with all this at a very difficult time for me and the kids, along with the additional stress of appealing the decision.”

Owen McCloskey, Law Centre NI legal officer, added:

“The decision confirms that the requirement for those who can never work to have paid contributions as a condition of entitlement to this benefit is unlawful. This is a significant decision which draws upon international standards to prevent unlawful discrimination and to protect the rights of disabled people and their families. The judgement potentially has wider implications beyond Northern Ireland for the whole of the UK.”

The case will now be sent back to the benefitstribunal for a final decision on the award.

This judgment not only helps the O’Donnell family, but it will also help more bereaved families in similar situations through dark periods by not adding hardship to their suffering.