Same-sex partners win pensions equality battle

Same-sex partners can no longer be paid less from pension funds saved by their partner, the Supreme Court has decided today.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the husband of 66-year-old John Walker would be entitled to a spouse’s pension on his death.

Walker sued chemical group Innospec for refusing to pay him a full spouse’s pension because he joined the company before 5 December 2005, when civil partnerships became legal in the UK.

The Equality Act 2010 contained an exemption that allowed employers to exclude civil partners from paying spousal benefits for periods before December 2005. The Supreme Court has ruled that this exemption is not lawful as it is incompatible with EU law.

Handing down the judgment, Lord Kerr said: “The salary paid to Mr Walker throughout his working life was precisely the same as that which would have been paid to a heterosexual man. There was no reason for the company to anticipate that it would not become liable to pay a survivor’s pension to his lawful spouse. The date when that pension will come due, provided Mr Walker and his partner remain married and his partner does not predecease Mr Walker, is the time at which denial of a pension would amount to discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.”

“The salary paid to Mr Walker throughout his working life was precisely the same as that which would have been paid to a heterosexual man. There was no reason for the company to anticipate that it would not become liable to pay a survivor’s pension to his lawful spouse. The date when that pension will come due, provided Mr Walker and his partner remain married and his partner does not predecease Mr Walker, is the time at which denial of a pension would amount to discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.”

Pinsent Masons pensions partner Alastair Meeks says: “The Supreme Court has surfed on the fast-changing social currents to consign to the scrapheap a compromise established a dozen years ago on the introduction of civil partnerships.  At the time the compromise was not particularly remarked upon as unfair, but now it looks distinctly out of date to many.

 “The Supreme Court used principles of EU law to strike down UK statute.  In these days of Brexit, that will attract attention.  It is unlikely in practice that post-Brexit any government would seek to reverse this decision, even if it could.  But it does suggest that the law might develop very differently from how it would otherwise develop once Britain has left the EU.  Social changes might well take considerably longer to work their way through into legal consequences.”

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady says: “This is a huge moment, which trade union members have long campaigned for. Pension law must catch up with the times, and discrimination against same-sex couples and those in civil partnerships must end.

“The courts today have removed a barrier to equality.  This ruling must end a system that has left thousands of people with added stress when they are grieving for loved ones.

“The ruling results from the equality rights that come from the EU. The government must make sure that the Repeal Bill, and the Brexit deal, do not allow these rights to be rolled back after Britain has left the EU.”

Broadstone technical director David Brooks says: “A great cheer should go up in the world of pensions today as the Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex married couples can receive the same pension entitlement in pension schemes as opposite sex married couples.

“This long awaited ruling means that any schemes paying the statutory minimum will now have to pay out the same benefits for all spouses and we no longer have to differentiate between the sexuality of beneficiaries. This may result in a marginal increase in funding levels of schemes, both private and public sectors alike, but it is a small price to pay for equality.

“The Government discussed this a number of times and it will be interesting to see if their reaction results in the predicted domino effect on to other pension inequalities, for instance around survivor benefits where GMP is involved.”