R (Carson) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
Judgment Date26 May 2005
Neutral Citation[2005] UKHL 37
CourtHouse of Lords
Date26 May 2005
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

ex parte

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

ex parte

Reynolds (FC)

[2005] UKHL 37



My Lords,


I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speeches of my noble and learned friends Lord Hoffmann and Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe. For the reasons they give, with which I agree, I too would dismiss these appeals.


I wish to make only one observation of my own. In Wandsworth London Borough Council v Michalak [2003] 1 WLR 617, 625, para 20, Brooke LJ set out four questions which a court might find it convenient to consider sequentially when addressing a discrimination claim under article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Subsequent judicial observations have shown that the precise formulation of these questions is not without difficulty. And at first instance in the Carson appeal Stanley Burnton J suggested a fifth question should be added to the list: see R (Carson) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2002] 3 All ER 994, 1009, para 51.


For my part, in company with all your Lordships, I prefer to keep formulation of the relevant issues in these cases as simple and non-technical as possible. Article 14 does not apply unless the alleged discrimination is in connection with a Convention right and on a ground stated in article 14. If this prerequisite is satisfied, the essential question for the court is whether the alleged discrimination, that is, the difference in treatment of which complaint is made, can withstand scrutiny. Sometime the answer to this question will be plain. There may be such an obvious, relevant difference between the claimant and those with whom he seeks to compare himself that their situations cannot be regarded as analogous. Sometimes, where the position is not so clear, a different approach is called for. Then the court's scrutiny may best be directed at considering whether the differentiation has a legitimate aim and whether the means chosen to achieve the aim is appropriate and not disproportionate in its adverse impact.


My Lords,


There are two appeals before your Lordships which were argued separately but in which judgments are being delivered together.

Carson v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Pensioners living abroad


Annette Carson is a writer. About 15 years ago she emigrated to South Africa. When she turned 60 on 1 September 2000 she became entitled to a United Kingdom retirement pension: £67.50 basic pension plus £32.17 SERPS and £3.95 graduated pension. She had paid all the necessary contributions, including voluntary payments made after emigration. So she started with the same pension she would have received if she had been living in the United Kingdom. On 9 April 2001, the basic pension for United Kingdom pensioners was increased to £72.50 to reflect the rise in the United Kingdom cost of living. It has been increased each year since then. But pensioners ordinarily resident abroad are not entitled to these annual increases. Ms Carson has continued to receive a basic pension of £67.50. As the law now stands, it will remain £67.50 for the rest of her life. The same applies to the other elements of her pension.


Ms Carson's case is typical of over 400,000 United Kingdom pensioners living abroad in countries which do not have reciprocal treaty arrangements under which cost of living increases are payable. There are such arrangements with the countries of the EEA and a number of others such as the United States ("treaty countries"). But there are no such treaties with South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and many other states.


Ms Carson complains that she is being unfairly treated. She says she has paid the same national insurance contributions as a United Kingdom resident and should receive the same pension. In these proceedings she claims that her treatment is incompatible with the prohibition of discrimination in article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. She is supported by associations of expatriate pensioners in South Africa and elsewhere. The case has generated a good deal of passion. Stanley Burnton J [2002] 3 All ER 994, 997, para 6 said that the pensioners had a "strong and understandable sense of grievance".


In my opinion the sense of grievance may be understandable but it is not justified. There is nothing unfair or irrational about according different treatment to people who live abroad. The primary function of social security benefits, including state retirement pensions, is to provide a basic standard of living for the inhabitants of the United Kingdom. They do so as part of an interlocking system of taxation and social welfare, including the provision of benefits in kind such as social housing and the National Health Service. The system as a whole is neither adapted nor intended to maintain the standard of living of inhabitants of other countries, even if they have past connections with the United Kingdom. The rules relating to some benefits do, exceptionally, provide limited recognition of the claims of expatriates such as Ms Carson on the ground of their past contributions to United Kingdom public funds. But they are in a different position from United Kingdom residents whose participation in those same benefits is integrated with the system as a whole. They therefore have no claim to be treated in the same way.


The general rule, subject to limited exceptions, has always been that social security benefits are payable only to inhabitants of the United Kingdom. A person "absent from Great Britain" is disqualified: section 113(1) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. But there is a power to make exceptions by regulation. Regulation 4 of the Social Security Benefit (Persons Abroad) Regulations 1975 ( SI 1975/563) (deemed to have been made under the 1992 Act) makes such an exception for retirement pensions. But regulation 5 makes an exception to the exception. In the absence of reciprocal treaty arrangements, persons ordinarily resident abroad continue to be disqualified from receiving the annual increases. Ms Carson must have been well aware of this when she emigrated to South Africa.

The scope of article 14


Article 14, upon which Ms Carson relies, does not prohibit all discrimination but only in certain respects and on certain grounds:

"The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status."

The principle that everyone is entitled to equal treatment by the state, that like cases should be treated alike and different cases should be treated differently, will be found, in one form or another, in most human rights instruments and written constitutions. They vary only in the generality with which the principle is expressed. Perhaps the broadest is contained in the 14th Amendment to the constitution of the United States: "No state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The scope of article 14 is narrower in two ways. First, it has a restricted list of the matters in respect of which discrimination is forbidden. They are "the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in [the] Convention". Secondly, it has a restricted list of the grounds upon which discrimination is forbidden. They are "any ground such as [the enumerated grounds] or other status".


Does the discrimination of which Ms Carson complains fall within these limits? She says that her right to a pension is a "possession" within the meaning of article 1P of Protocol 1 ("1P1") which protects the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions. The state is therefore not entitled to discriminate in according her that right. I must confess that my first instinct would not be to regard a social security benefit like a state pension as a possession until it had actually fallen due. But the European Court has developed a somewhat artificial jurisprudence on this question. It has clearly felt frustrated by the need to find a Convention pigeon hole into which to fit every objectionable form of discrimination. Social security benefits are a good example. In principle it does not seem at all unreasonable that in distributing public money in the form of social security benefits, the state should be obliged to treat like cases alike, although, as we shall see, there may be differences of opinion over what makes cases relevantly different. But the virtual absence of economic rights in the Convention has made it difficult to relate this principle to the enjoyment of any specified right.


The preferred choice of the Strasbourg court in locating a Convention right in cases of economic discrimination by the state has been 1P1. In Müller v Austria (1975) 3 DR 25 the Commission said that a claim to contributory benefits was a "possession" by analogy with the proprietary right of a contributor to a private pension fund. This case has since been regularly followed: see, for example, Gaygusuz v Austria (1997) 23 EHRR 364, 376, para 47. But the analogy is weak because (at any rate in the United Kingdom) contributions are hardly distinguishable from general taxation, the "fund" exists purely as a matter of public accounting and no one is entitled to anything beyond that which the legislation may from time to time prescribe. The Strasbourg court has been obliged to accommodate this state of affairs by saying that although a claim to a social security benefit is a possession (thereby attracting article 14) it does not entitle one to anything...

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