A gay former cavalry officer has won a legal battle to provide his husband with equal pension rights in a landmark discrimination case at the supreme court.

The unanimous judgment, which could benefit thousands of couples, will ensure that should John Walker die first, his partner will have access to an income of about £45,000 a year for life. It may also impose unexpected liabilities on pension funds.

Lawyers for the human rights organisation Liberty, which represented Walker, argued that a same-sex husband should enjoy the same pension rights as a widow. Under current law, Walker’s husband would receive only about £1,000 a year.

Walker, 65, has been with his husband, a former computer executive who is 52, since 1993. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force in December 2005. They entered into a civil partnership in January 2006, which was later converted into marriage.

Delivering the judgment, Lord Kerr said: “The salary paid to Mr Walker throughout his working life was precisely the same as that which would have been paid to a heterosexual man. There was no reason for the company to anticipate that it would not become liable to pay a survivor’s pension to his lawful spouse.”

To deny his partner access to the funds would amount to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, he added, even though the pension rights were earned before the Civil Partnership Act came into force.

Kerr said: “Mr Walker’s husband is entitled to a spouse’s pension calculated on all the years of his service with Innospec [the chemicals company where he worked], provided that at the date of Mr Walker’s death, they remain married.”

The judges’ decision was based on an EU framework directive from 2000 guaranteeing gender equality under employment law. An employment appeal tribunal and the court of appeal had previously declared that the 2010 Equality Act permitted firms to restrict benefits generated by periods of service before 2005.

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