The family of a severely disabled woman in Northern Ireland were discriminated against by the refusal of bereavement payments following her death, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Law Centre NI successfully challenged the decision to withhold bereavement support payment to the family of Pauline O’Donnell who was severely disabled due to a progressive degenerative condition.

Ms O’Donnell died in 2017 leaving a young family.

The Department for Communities declined her husband’s claim for Bereavement Support Payments (BSP) on the basis that his late wife had not paid enough National Insurance.

Ms O’Donnell had not paid the necessary contributions because, having been severely disabled from an early age, she had never been able to work and fulfil the contribution requirements.

The Court of Appeal ruled that current arrangements discriminate by treating the family of a deceased person who was never able to work the same as a family of a deceased person who chose not to work.

‘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’

Pauline’s husband, Michael O’Donnell, said: “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.”

Law Centre NI legal officer, Owen McCloskey, added: “We are very pleased that the Court of Appeal has come to this decision. It was clear that Pauline was never able to work due to her severe disability. The refusal to award bereavement support payment discriminated against families in situations like this one.

“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.

“I want to acknowledge the courage of Mr O’Donnell and his family for taking this case forward to clarify the law for others. We hope no other family has to go through anything similar again.”

 
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