Fatal accidents rule compatible with human rights

Posted: 19th March 2013

A mother who was denied compensation after her partner was killed in a workplace accident because their relationship had not subsisted for two years has failed to persuade the Court of Appeal that the requirement contained within section 1(3)(b) of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 discriminates against cohabitees and is incompatible with human rights.

Laurie Swift had her £400,000 compensation claim in respect of the accidental death of her partner, Alan Winters, dismissed because they were not married and their relationship did not meet the two-year test laid down by the Act. By the time of his death in September 2008, they had been in a relationship for 18 months and living together for six. She gave birth to Mr Winters’ son two months after his death.APIL SL

Having had her case dismissed at first instance, her lawyers argued on appeal that the two-year test was discriminatory within the meaning of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights and incompatible with Article 8, which enshrines the right to respect for family life. It was submitted that the law was ‘out of date’ and was drafted at a time when cohabitation was relatively rare.

The court acknowledged that the two-year test had been described as ‘unjust, unfair and indefensibly arbitrary by, inter alia, the Law Commission, the House of Commons Justice Committee and the Ministry of Justice but in dismissing the appeal, the court ruled that Parliament enjoyed ‘a generous margin’ when deciding how social and economic change should be met by legislative reform.

Lord Dyson, the Master of the Rolls, said: "The decision as to which cohabitees should be able to claim damages for loss of dependency raises difficult issues of social and economic policy on which opinions may legitimately differ. There is no obviously right answer. It may be that many would say that the law needs changing. But the choice made by Parliament was not manifestly without reasonable foundation and was one which it was entitled to make".

The purpose of the legislation was to confer a right to damages on those who have ‘relationships of some degree of permanence and dependence’ with victims of fatal accidents. Despite widespread criticism of the law, the ‘important and difficult issues of social and economic policy’ involved meant Parliament had to be ‘accorded a wide margin of discretion’, the court concluded.