Sisters lose inheritance tax appeal

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two elderly sisters fighting for the same rights as married and gay couples have lost a last-ditch legal appeal for equal treatment.

In a 15-2 vote, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Joyce and Sybil Burden, who have lived together all their lives, do not face unfair discrimination under UK inheritance tax rules.

Joyce, 90, and 82-year-old Sybil, have been fighting for decades to avoid crippling inheritance tax on their home in Marlborough, Wiltshire, when one of them dies.

They claimed UK inheritance tax laws breached their human rights by exempting married and gay couples from paying inheritance tax, while targeting cohabiting siblings.

But the Grand Chamber of the human rights court upheld an earlier human rights ruling that national governments were entitled to some discretion when deciding taxation arrangements.

The decision, a major blow to the sisters, means that when one of them dies the other will have to sell their four-bedroom property to pay the 40 per cent inheritance tax on its value above £300,000.

If they had won their case, UK inheritance tax law would have had to change, to place cohabiting couples on an equal footing with married couples and "civil partnerships" in being exempt from inheritance tax.

The sisters have been fighting the battle for decades - writing to the Chancellor of the day before every Budget since 1976, pleading for recognition under the tax rules as a cohabiting couple.

And when the UK Civil Partnership Act of 2004 first recognised gay and lesbian couples for inheritance tax purposes, the sisters turned to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming the Act violated Human Rights Convention articles outlawing discrimination and guaranteeing the "protection of property".

In 2006 the Burdens lost the case by a 4-3 majority of the panel of seven human rights judges - although three members of the court described their inheritance tax plight as "awful" and "particularly striking".

But the appeal hearing, before a larger 17-member panel of human rights judges, produced a more decisive 15-2 majority against the sisters today.

The ruling marks the end of the road for the sisters' legal bid.

After losing the first human rights case in 2006, Joyce Burden commented: "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."

Comments