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Gay man wins landmark pensions equality case

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

A gay man has secured equal pension rights for his husband following a landmark case heard at the Supreme Court.

In a judgment handed down this week, the justices of the Supreme Court unanimously allowed for John Walker’s husband to receive a ‘spouse’s pension’ upon his death, provided they remain married.

This ruling entitles Walker’s husband to a pension of around £45,000 per year – the same amount if he was married to a woman – rather than the £1,000 per year he would have received.

The retiree worked for Innospec Ltd from 1980 until his retirement in 2003 during which time he made regular contributions to the firms occupational (defined benefit) pension scheme.

Walker lived with his male partner since 1993, entered a civil partnership in 2006, and they are now married.

In 2006 Walker asked Innospec to confirm that in the event of his death, it would pay the spouse’s pension to his civil partner. It refused because his service predated 5 December 2005 – the date that civil partnerships were introduced in the UK.

The Equality Act 2010 has an exemption for employers, which previously allowed them to exclude civil partners from spousal benefits paid in before December 2005. The Supreme Court ruled that the exemption was incompatible with EU law and should not be applied.

Walker brought a discrimination case to an employment tribunal where it was upheld, but Innospec’s appeal was allowed. Walker then appealed to the Court of Appeal where the claim was dismissed, before being brought to the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court.

What does the ruling mean for other same-sex couples?

As the ruling was made at the Supreme Court, same-sex couples should now be entitled to claim a spouse’s pension in the event of both death and divorce, according to Weightmans.

Mark Poulston, partner and head of pensions at Weightmans, said: “The decision ensures that all civil partners and married couples, whether they are of the same sex or opposite sex, have equal pension rights in the event of death. Thousands of couples will benefit.

“It also comes as an additional cost to many employers. An exemption in the Equality Act has previously allowed pension schemes to limit pension benefits for surviving civil partners or spouses of the same sex to those built up since 5 December 2005, when the Civil Partnership Act came into effect. This exemption had been reviewed by government in June 2014 when, against a background of already escalating pension liabilities, it did not make any recommendations to remove the exemption.

“The Supreme Court has now resolved the issue, requiring equal treatment. However, as its decision is based on EU equality laws, the next question is whether this new protection will survive the upheaval of Brexit.”