Just imagine that you have lived with your partner for 20 years. You never married, because you are happy as things are. As far as you are concerned, you are just like any other devoted couple.
Then, one day, your partner goes out to work and never comes home. He is crushed to death because his negligent employer failed to install adequate safety equipment.
Now, on top of everything else you have to deal with, you learn that in the eyes of the Government, you were not actually like any other devoted couple after all, because you were neither married nor in a civil partnership. Statutory bereavement damages are available to married couples, or people in a civil partnership as a ‘token’ payment from the State. It is designed to recognise the pain and grief following such a huge loss, when that loss is a result of negligence. You may have lived together for 20 years, but the fact that you didn’t have a marriage licence or civil partnership certificate means you are not entitled to this ‘token’.
Now imagine a different scenario. Try to imagine you are the unmarried father of a bright 16-year-old girl who has just started as an apprentice and is killed at work by falling debris. As a father myself, I know this is almost unthinkable.
Should such a tragedy happen, the last thing on anybody’s mind is claiming the State’s ‘token’ payment, because compensation can never replace a loved one. But as time moves on, people do think about it and sometimes take up their right to make the claim. In this case though, the father would not be entitled because, even though they had all lived together as a family, he was not married to his daughter’s mother. The mother would be entitled to claim bereavement damages, but not the father.
We are now almost two decades into the 21st century, and still people are going to work and never coming home again – killed by the negligence of their employers. This Sunday is Workers’ Memorial Day and reminds us that we should never give up the fight to make sure our workplaces are safe.
But I’d like also to use this as an opportunity to stop and consider those who are left behind. In 2017, 20 per cent of couples in the UK were cohabiting. That’s more than three million couples who do not have the same right to bereavement damages as married couples or couples in civil partnerships.
Unless, that is, they live in Scotland, where the law is much more flexible, and takes into account actual family relationships rather than licences and certificates.
The law on statutory bereavement damages is out of date; it is discriminatory, and it is ripe for reform.