Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

February 5,  2007  



British sisters to appeal human rights ruling

By Thomas F. Coleman

Two elderly sisters in the United Kingdom narrowly lost their challenge to that nation's inheritance tax laws which exempt same-sex partners from taxation so long as they are not related to each other. 

In a 4 to 3 decision filed in December 2006, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the UK's tax rules did not violate the Human Rights Convention's provisions on discrimination and protection of property.

Under UK tax codes, when either Joyce, 88 or Sybil Burden, 80, dies the surviving sister will face a large inheritance tax bill on their jointly owned property which will require the survivor to sell the house in order to pay the tax bill.

In 2004, the UK passed a Civil Partnership Act in which it extended to gays and lesbians the same exemption from inheritance tax that married couples have. 

When the Civil Partnership Bill was passing through the British Parliament, an amendment to it was passed in the House of Lords by 148 votes to130.  That version of the proposed law would have extended the availability of civil partnership, and the associated inheritance tax concession, to blood relatives if they were over 30 years of age, had co-habited for at least 12 years, and were not already married or in a civil partnership.

That amendment was later rejected by the House of Commons.

The sisters (shown in photo) asked officials for an exemption anyway but it was denied.  They then sent a letter to the European Court, arguing that UK authorities had violated their rights under Europe's human rights laws.

Four of the seven judges accepted the UK's argument that the inheritance tax exemption for married and civil partnership couples was not a form of illegal discrimination since the exemption law had a legitimate aim, namely, "to promote stable, committed heterosexual and homosexual relationships by providing the survivor with a measure of financial security after the death of the spouse or partner."

Britain's representative on the court, Nicolas Bratza, was one of four judges who voted against the sisters.

In the view of the dissenting judges, "the situation of permanently cohabiting siblings is in many respects -- emotional as well as economical -- not entirely different from the situation of other unions, particularly as regards old or very old people." 

"It is very important to protect such unions, like any other union of two persons, from financial disaster resulting from the death of one of the partners," the dissenters wrote.

The dissenting judges emphasized that the government had specifically precluded blood relatives from forming a Civil Partnership, thereby depriving siblings such as these sisters from establishing a statutory claim for an exemption.  "In other words, they have been deprived of the possibility of choice offered to other couples," they observed.

One of the three dissenters, Judge Stanislav Pavlovsachi of Moldova, wrote a separate dissent in which he found it "absolutely awful that, once one of the two sisters dies, the surviving sister's sufferings on account of her closest relative's death should be multiplied by the risk of losing her family home because she cannot afford to pay inheritance tax in respect of the deceased sister's share of it."

Reacting to the court's decision, Joyce Burden told a British newspaper, "If we were lesbians, we would have all the rights in the world. But we are sisters, and it seems we have no rights at all."

British author Patricia Morgan, an expert on family issues, criticized the court's ruling and told the British press, "I do not see any reason why one type of relationship should qualify, and another should not. It is direct discrimination."

The decision of the 7-member court can be appealed within three months to a 17-member Grand Chamber which has the option of hearing the appeal or declining to review it.  Since the decision in this case was filed on December 12, 2006, the sisters have a few more weeks to present their appeal to the Grand Chamber.

A spokesperson for the attorneys representing the sisters informed me last week that the sisters have instructed their lawyers to prepare and file an appeal.

I have only one comment I would like to pass on to the Burden sisters -- "You go girls."

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Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.