UK Supreme Court Upholds Pension Benefits for Same-Sex Couples

High Court says it is discriminatory to treat same-sex partners less favorably than an opposite-sex spouse.

The UK’s Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that spousal pension benefits cannot be denied to same-sex partners.

In the case of Walker v. Innospec Limited, John Walker filed a lawsuit against his former employer after the company informed him that, in the event of his death, they would not pay the spouse’s pension to his same-sex civil partner.

According to court documents, Walker worked for chemicals company Innospec from 1980 until his retirement in 2003, and during his 23 years of service made regular contributions to the company’s occupational pension plan. Walker has lived with his male partner since 1993; they entered into a civil partnership in 2006, and are currently married.

In 2006, Walker asked Innospec to confirm that, in the event of his death, they would pay the spouse’s pension, which the company’s pension plan provides for, to his civil partner. Innospec refused, saying that because his service predated Dec. 5, 2005, which was when civil partnerships were introduced in the UK, any discriminatory treatment is therefore permitted under paragraph 18 of Schedule 9 of the Equality Act of 2010.

If Walker were married to a woman, she would be entitled on his death to a spouse’s pension of approximately £45,700 per year. However, based on Innospec’s decision to deny spousal benefits, Walker’s husband was only entitled to a pension of about £1,000 per year.

“This provides that it is lawful to discriminate against an employee who is in a civil partnership or same-sex marriage by preventing or restricting them from having access to a benefit, facility or service the right to which accrued before 5 December 2005 or which is payable in respect of periods of service before that date,” the Court wrote in its judgment.

The Court unanimously ruled in favor of Walker’s appeal, declaring that paragraph 18 of Schedule 9 to the Equality Act 2010 is incompatible with EU law, and must be disapplied. It also ruled that Walker’s husband is entitled on his death to a spouse’s pension, provided they remain married.

“Although EU law does not impose any requirement on member states to recognize same-sex partnerships,” said the high court in its ruling, “the European Court of Justice has held that if a status equivalent to marriage is available under national law, it is directly discriminatory contrary to the Framework Directive for an employer to treat a same-sex partner who is in such a partnership less favorably than an opposite-sex spouse.”

Walker’s claim for discrimination was originally upheld by the Employment Tribunal, but Innospec’s appeal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal was allowed, and Walker’s appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed before he appealed to the UK Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court said that in dismissing Walker’s appeal, the Court of Appeal wrongly concluded that entitlement to a survivor’s pension is “permanently fixed” at the date of retirement. “In the opinion of the majority of the Court, these cases are not relevant to the application of the Framework Directive in a case such as this,” the Court wrote in its ruling.

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