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Monday, 2 October, 2000, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Case study: Fight for equal rights
With the Human Rights Act in place, Dominic Casciani spoke to one couple preparing to go to the courts to enforce their rights.
Monday 2 October is, in the words of Ron Strank, a "watershed of hope" for him and his partner, Roger Fisher.
In April they and friends gathered to celebrate the south London's couple's 40th anniversary. And perhaps at the same time next year they might be gathering to celebrate a major human rights success that will see them overturn what many regard as discriminatory pensions regulations.
Ron and Roger spent their entire working lives in the nursing profession within the NHS.
In the event of the death of one of them, the surviving partner will not receive a "spousal pension", worth half of their late partner's NHS retirement benefit.
Ron, 67, or Roger, 65, could have been entitled to what is known as a "dependents" pension but that would have only been worth 33% and had additional financial penalties before death.
The regulation affects all non-married couples and was drawn up at the birth of the NHS, a era when the done thing was to be married.
Backed by the Royal College of Nursing, the public services union Unison and Liberty, the Human Rights group, Ron and Roger will be among the first, and probably more significant cases to challenge part of the British state under the Human Rights Act.
They will argue that the NHS's regulations are denying them their right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions and the right to enjoy that freedom free from discrimination.
For its part, the NHS says that it is considering extending the pension scheme to cover unmarried partners, but at the cost of additional contributions.
'Fair piece of the action'
"When you're 18 years old and you start your working life, pensions just aren't the kind of thing that you really think about," Ron told BBC News Online.
"A surviving partner, be they married or not, needs all the help they can get and this is not the kind of thing you want to be confronted with at that time in your life.
We've made provision for each other but the pensions issue is just so frustrating."
Quasi-legal discrimination against unmarried couples exists in many financial areas of life, something that Ron and Roger hope their case will highlight.
For instance, regulations covering death duties and next of kin rights are also different for married and unmarried couples.
In those kinds of circumstances, surviving partners have in the past found themselves in extraordinarily bitter legal battles with a late partner's family over rights to an estate.
"The law's a nonsense really," Ron told BBC News Online. "I'm optimistic but we also have to realists about what we are going to achieve.
"Perhaps we won't benefit from it ourselves. But it would be nice to think that those people coming up behind us in years to come will not have this to worry about."
Sexual equality debate
Both Ron and Roger are framing their case in terms of striking a blow for what they concluded long ago to be ludicrous bureaucracy.
But at the same time, their case will be in the vanguard of a string of cases expected to challenge the British state's attitude towards gay and lesbian relationships.
"In Ron and Roger's case there's no discretion by the NHS pension trustees," she said. "You couldn't even attempt a judicial review. So before the Human Rights Act came in there was nothing they could do before the British courts.
"They made contributions to the NHS pension scheme all their lives. Why shouldn't they get the same rights as unmarried couples?"
Liberty says that one of the social and legal problems raised by the Strank and Fisher case is that British society has not been flexible enough to create a way of establishing before the courts that a partnership exists outside of marriage.
Gary Partridge has already found himself in that situation. Mr Partridge's partner John Light was killed in the Soho pub bombing in April 1999.
But the fact that they were not married meant that Mr Partridge was not entitled to a bereavement award from the government's criminal injuries compensation scheme.
"The discrimination I came across really was a kick in the teeth," he said.
The Netherlands is one European country which has got around this impasse.
It has created "civil partnerships" that record, for the state, that a permanent relationship exists between same-sex partners.
But will the courts help the UK move down that road?
Small steps for equality
Stonewall, the gay and lesbian equality campaigners, think not yet.
"We're looking at the Act fairly cautiously as so much of it will be open to the interpretation of the courts," said Stonewall's Sebastian Sandys.
"We're certainly not going to be seeing gay marriages by Christmas or anything like that which some people assume is inevitable. It's a much more open debate."
Stonewall believes that the advent of the Human Rights Act is as much about changing cultural attitudes as legal realities within the state.
"This is about a practical level approach and a lot of it will depend on the attitude of the courts and how they will interpret the law," said Mr Sandys.
As for Ron Strank and Roger Fisher, they admit to slightly enjoying becoming a cause celebre.
"We've had a big response from both straight and gay couples who are outside of marriage," said Ron.
"They find themselves in similarly distressing situations.
"But an important aspect of this is that many gay people in this liberated age are still not prepared to put their head above the parapet.
"There's little that we can do for people's attitudes towards our lifestyle, and I that's just tough," said Ron.
"But perhaps, in fairness to my countrymen, they like injustice even less."
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