In a new report, the UK Parliament’s Human Rights Committee welcomes the government’s proposed changes to the Fatal Accidents Act (1976), which extends the right to claim bereavement damages to cohabiting couples, but “regrets that is has taken twenty years” to happen.
The Committee, made up of MPs and Peers and chaired by Harriet Harman MP, also raises wider concerns with the bereavement damages scheme as a whole and recommends the Government undertake a consultation with a view to reform.
How the current law discriminates
The current law states that bereavement damages after a wrongful death, for example in an accident or following clinical negligence, are only available to certain relatives of the deceased ie their married or civil partner or their parents in limited circumstances. It does not allow claims to be made by cohabiting partners.
In 1999, the Law Commission recommended the inclusion of cohabiting partners as an eligible category of claimant for bereavement damages. However nothing further was done at the time.
It came to further attention following a court case in 2017 where the claimant’s co-habiting partner of eleven years died as a result of NHS negligence, however she was not eligible to claim bereavement damages as she was not the wife or civil partner of the deceased. The court found that this discrimination was unjustifiable and was therefore incompatible with Articles 14 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the prohibition of discrimination and the right to private and family life).
The Committee further identified concerns with the bereavement scheme as a whole, including the definition of cohabiting couples, the exclusion of other family members, such as fathers following bereavement of a deceased child born outside of wedlock, the division of damages between claimants, and the stigmatising references to “illegitimate children” which should removed from the law.
The report concludes that a consultation on reforming the bereavement damages scheme is needed.
The further reforms proposed by the committee would also be welcomed. They should also scrutinise the amount of bereavement damages available which are currently fixed at a maximum of £12,980”.
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