UNMARRIED couples are entitled to the same public insurance benefits as their married counterparts in the event that their life partners die.
The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) gave legal recognition to those in long-term heterosexual relationships, saying they should be allowed to claim for loss of financial support from the Road Accident Fund (RAF) if the family's breadwinner died in a car accident.
All couples in a life partnership had to do was prove to the court they had an agreement to support each other financially, Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Azhar Cachalia, writing on behalf of a full bench of the SAC, said.
The ruling now means Johannesburg woman Maria Paixão will be allowed to claim for the income she and her family lost when her life partner and the family breadwinner, José Gomes, died in a car crash. Before the watershed ruling yesterday, she would only have been able to do so if they were legally married.
Judge Cachalia said they were called on to decide if people in Paixão's position had a right that was "worthy of the law's protection".
Paixão's RAF claim was denied by the High Court in Johannesburg, with Judge Ramimaka Mathopo saying it "would be an affront to the fabric of our society ... and seriously erode the institution of marriage" to allow it.
However, the SCA said that if one looked at South Africa today, this was not the case.
"What we are required to decide here is whether the evolving fabric of our society requires [that we develop the law] to include heterosexual life partners.
"A failure to confront this question squarely ... would be an abdication of our judicial responsibility. Our courts have emphasised the importance of marriage and the nuclear family as important social institutions of society, which give rise to important legal obligations, particularly the [mutual] duty of support placed upon spouses," he said.
"The fact is, however, that the nuclear family has, for a long time, not been the norm in South Africa. South Africans have lower rates of marriage and higher rates of extramarital childbearing than found in most countries.
"Millions of South Africans live together without entering into formal marriages."
He said that apart from legal and religious constraints, many other South Africans were unable to marry for social, cultural or financial reasons.
"Life partnerships have therefore increasingly received legislative and judicial recognition ... In my view, the 'general sense of justice of the community' demands this," Judge Cachalia said.
"By coming to this conclusion I do not intend to demean the value or importance that our society places on marriage as an institution, as the high court feared.
"On the contrary, I am extending the protection afforded to the dependants of the deceased precisely because the nature of their relationship is similar to a family relationship arising from a legally recognised marriage."
The Road Accident Fund was ordered to pay Paixão R1.7-million and R451626 to her daughter, Michelle.