Bereavement and the law

When tragedy occurs and a loved one passes away as a result of negligence, grieving families in Northern Ireland are often bereft of justice in their time of need.

It has long been said that the law here fails to adequately support the bereaved, contributing to additional stress, financial and emotional damage.

Indeed, the law allows only a limited category of people to claim a statutory bereavement award under the Fatal Accidents (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. This award is fixed, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding the individual’s death. Conversely, in Scotland, there is no limit set for bereavement damages. For this reason, the approach in Northern Ireland has been subjected to major criticism.

Whilst the Northern Ireland Department of Justice announced that the amount of statutory bereavement damages would increase from £15,100 to £17,200 in December 2022, this fails to consider parties who may be entitled to much more.

Currently, only bereaved spouses, civil partners, and parents of minors (under 18s) are eligible to claim compensation under the bereavement award. Therefore, parties falling outside of this narrow remit are left without compensation for their loss. This approach further fails to account for unmarried partners, children, siblings and stepparents, who may have been the closest relative to the deceased. A radical legal reform is clearly needed to expand those entitled to claim compensation.

The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has heavily criticised the situation and continues to call for reform. In April 2021, APIL published a report titled ‘Bereavement Damages: A Dis-United Kingdom’, which highlighted the postcode lottery of the current approach. APIL praises the more flexible system in Scotland and campaigns for this to be mirrored in Northern Ireland, England and Wales.

Dependency Claims

Where the Deceased was over 18 and supported others, the law holds that the person bringing the claim must establish that they were reasonably reliant on the Deceased for support, financial or otherwise, to receive compensation. These claims therefore address the fact that the Deceased is no longer able to financially support or otherwise assist a Dependant. The court therefore affords compensation to the Dependent based on the particular loss of support the Dependant has endured.

Who is eligible to claim for dependency?

The Fatal Accidents (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 outlines a list of entitled individuals who may be entitled to make a dependency claim:

  • Spouses, civil partners or former spouses or civil partners of the Deceased
  • Couples who were living together in the same household for at least 2 years before the deceased passed away
  • Any parent of the Deceased or any person the Deceased treated as a parent (stepparent)
  • Any child or descendant of the Deceased
  • Where the deceased was married or in a civil partnership, any person the deceased treated as a child or parent in relation to that marriage or civil partnership (stepchild)
  • Siblings, aunts or uncles of the Deceased

Going forward

The current approach to bereavement damages and dependency claims feels archaic and unjust. Scotland has adopted a more modern approach, calculating sums claimed by dependants on a case-by-case basis. This considers a range of factors such as the circumstances of an accident and how severe the damages experienced by those close to the Deceased. This offers compromise, refraining from compensating undeserving parties whilst compensating those who, in extenuating circumstances, deserve to be awarded. It enables the bereaved to be adequately compensated.

Perhaps Northern Ireland can use Scotland’s system as a blueprint for remodelling how it supports grieving families.

Millar McCall Wylie’s team of experienced solicitors regularly supports those who have been bereaved to fully understand their legal rights and options during the most difficult of times.