The pensions battleground

by | Mar 1, 2024 | Pension History

30 years ago, pension disputes rarely figured as concerns of employers and trustees, let alone made news headlines. Times have changed. A recent story, colourfully titled “Boots chemists at war over callous pension changes” caught the eye-while elsewhere trustees of USS have reportedly rebuffed members’ pressure to disinvest from Israeli connected investments.

Both cases raise interesting legal issues about rights / expectations in one case and trustees’ investment duties in the other, but they only illustrate how much things have changed. In 1987, a case concerning surplus in the Courage Group’s pension schemes was heard, arguably marking the beginning of a trend towards greater legal scrutiny of pension rights and obligations and the restrictive interpretation of trust deeds and rules.  Some lawyers argued that too much weight was being placed on non-binding parts of the judgement, but the direction of travel was clear. Legal risk would begin to creep onto risk registers.

The trend was fuelled by uncertainties in domestic and EU derived pensions legislation. The 1990’s alone witnessed statutory codification of parts of trust law and new statutory duties, a new pensions regulator and the equality battles fought out following GRE v Barber. It was becoming easier to pursue complaints. The Pensions Ombudsman came into being in 1991 and the Association of Pension Lawyers a decade earlier. Dispute specialists emerged. Understanding of pensions issues increased among trades unions and others.

No wonder pension disputes make the headlines.

Pensions Archive Trust Director, Jane Marshall

This article was first published in the March 2024 edition of Pensions Age magazine.