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Fatal Accidents Act changes welcomed by Committee

16 July 2019

Changes to law governing bereavement damages “welcome” but regrettable that it took twenty years to happen, says Human Rights Committee.

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 law currently says that bereavement damages after a wrongful death are only available to certain relatives of the deceased; their married or civil partner or their parents in limited circumstances. It does not allow claims to be made by cohabiting partners.

The need for a correction to the law arose after 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). 

In 1999, the Law Commission recommended the inclusion of cohabiting partners as an eligible category of claimant for bereavement damages. This reform is therefore welcome but long overdue.

Consultation on reforms to the law is needed

The Committee further cites 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 consultation could examine, for example, whether family members with a genuine close family relationship with the deceased who are currently excluded should be entitled to damages or whether the approach in Scotland of assessing damages on a case by case basis should be considered.

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