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John Walker wins Supreme Court battle – ending pension inequality for same-sex couples

13 July 2017

Yesterday the UK Supreme Court ruled that discrimination against same-sex couples on pension rights must end immediately.

John Walker was represented by human rights organisation Liberty and won his five-year legal battle to secure equal pension benefits for his husband – in a landmark case that could change the lives of thousands of couples across the UK.

The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that an exemption in the Equality Act – letting employers exclude same-sex partners from spousal benefits paid into pension funds before December 2005 – is discriminatory and breaches EU equality laws.

The ruling from the UK’s highest court means the provision is immediately disapplied. From today, companies taking advantage of the exemption will be breaking the law.

It marks the end of a lengthy fight for Mr Walker and Liberty, after an initial Employment Tribunal victory in 2012.


Bridget Garrood of Cartridges Law said: “This decision is fantastic news! It will potentially benefit LGBT  people who are currently age 27 or over and who are  in a same sex marriage or civil partnership.  Anyone under that age already has full equality because they are not old enough to have made any of their pension contributions before the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 came into force in 2005."  

"Unfortunately, the majority of couples who have celebrated a same sex marriage or Civil Partnership and who have a pension, will have done so in complete ignorance that they did not necessarily enjoy full pensions equality with their straight married friends. Their precise survivor rights however will differ from pension to pension,  and anyone with a pension who believes they may be affected is welcome to contact me with any such anxieties.  The Supreme Court has made it clear today to the government that this so-called “permitted discrimination” is unlawful.”

Bridget specialises in the financial, property and pension aspects of family breakdown, including divorce, dissolution of civil partnership and the tricky legal minefield surrounding cohabitation. She was one of the first solicitors to be recognised by the Solicitors Family Law Association in 2001 for her specialist knowledge in what was then the brand new concept of pension sharing on divorce. She has continued to gain vast experience of a range of pension claims including police pensions, army pensions, NHS pensions and many others.


Bridget has amassed a wealth of expertise in advising LGBT clients, including people separating from a civil partner. She has written and lectured widely as an expert in Civil Partnership Law and has developed a unique specialism in pensions for civil partners.  If you have a pension and believe you may be affected by this decision do get in touch with Bridget, this is a complex area of the law, and requires specialist advice.


John Walker said: “I am absolutely thrilled at today’s ruling, which is a victory for basic fairness and decency. Finally this absurd injustice has been consigned to the history books – and my husband and I can now get on with enjoying the rest of our lives together.

“But it is to our Government’s great shame that it has taken so many years, huge amounts of taxpayers’ money and the UK’s highest court to drag them into the 21st century. In the years since we started this legal challenge, how many people have spent their final days uncertain about whether their loved one would be looked after? How many people have been left unprovided for, having already suffered the loss of their partner?

“What I would like from Theresa May and her ministers today is a formal commitment that this change will stay on the statute books after Brexit.”


Emma Norton, Liberty lawyer acting for Mr Walker, said: “We are delighted the Supreme Court recognised this pernicious little provision for what it was – discrimination against gay people, pure and simple.

“But this ruling was made under EU law and is a direct consequence of the rights protection the EU gives us. We now risk losing that protection. The Government must promise that there will be no rollback on LGBT rights after Brexit – and commit to fully protecting them in UK law.

“How else can John be sure he and others like him have achieved lasting justice today?”


Background

John Walker retired from chemicals group Innospec in 2003, having worked for the company for more than 20 years.

During his time there, he was required to pay into its pension scheme. He made the same contributions as his heterosexual colleagues.

Mr Walker and his husband have been together since 1993. They entered into a civil partnership in January 2006, having registered on the first day it was legally possible to do so. This was later converted into a marriage.

Relying on the Equality Act exemption, Innospec made clear that – should Mr Walker die – his husband would not receive the same survivor benefits he would if he were a woman.

Those benefits would not include all the contributions Mr Walker had made prior to 2005 – leaving his husband with a pension of only a few hundred pounds a year. If he were married to a woman, she would receive £45,000 a year for the rest of her life.

Innospec’s position was supported by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which joined the case and led much of the argument against Mr Walker.

The DWP argued that gay couples in the position of Mr Walker and his husband should not benefit from the same pension arrangements as heterosexual couples.


Today’s judgment

Today’s unanimous judgment was given by Lord Kerr. All five justices agreed the loophole was discriminatory and breached EU law.

The judgment finds that:

• The legal status of gay and lesbian employees has been transformed by the introduction of equality legislation from the EU (paragraph 17).

• Non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is now a principle of EU law. Any denial of a spouse’s pension calculated on the basis of all Mr Walker’s years of service would be unlawful (paragraph 74).

• The Equality Act loophole that enables such discrimination is unlawful and must be disapplied. Mr Walker’s husband is entitled to a spouse’s pension calculated on all the years of Mr Walker’s time with Innospec (paragraph 76).

• Since the European Communities Act 1972, UK courts have had the power to disapply national law where it conflicts with EU law. This will change when the UK leaves the EU.

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