Another step forward in the rights of unmarried couples

The recently reported case of Jane Langford v The Secretary of State for Defence is a reminder that those who live with partners can unexpectedly find themselves with very different legal entitlements to those who are married. The right to make claims in the event of separation and/or death will often depend on whether or not you are legally married. In some cases, this can lead to an unmarried partner being left in a financially vulnerable position.

Air Commodore Christopher Green died unexpectedly in 2011 whilst still in service with the RAF. His partner, Jane Langford, with whom he had lived for 15 years expected (as he too had understood) that she would receive survivors’ benefits including a pension.

However, whist the RAF scheme rules allow unmarried survivors to benefit, so as to avoid discrimination between married and unmarried couples, they excluded unmarried partners who remained legally married to someone else.

Jane Langford was still legally married to her ex-husband, although they had been estranged for 17 years and she received no financial support from him. It was accepted that she had been in an exclusive relationship with Air Commodore Green and she was financially interdependent with him. However, the Secretary of State for Defence disallowed her claims due to the fact that she had never formally divorced from her husband.

She fought this decision over a period of eight years – initially appealing to a First-tier Tribunal and then to the Upper Tribunal and finally to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal considered the arguments as to why the scheme rules should be allowed and concluded that there was no justification for discriminating against unmarried survivors in this way.

Happily, Jane Langford is therefore entitled to receive the survivors’ benefits which she had been denied. The hope is that this decision will open the gateway to others who have been denied pension rights following the death of a partner. However, there is no guarantee that others will be entitled. In their judgment the Court of Appeal acknowledged that they were only looking at this specific case and there well may be other cases, including with other public service schemes, where such exclusions may be deemed to be justified.

Sue Brookes

Karen McGonagle