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Trustees must act after landmark legal case

23 February 2017

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A landmark legal case in Northern Ireland could lead to wide-ranging implications for the UK's public sector pension schemes.

The Supreme Court ruled a local government pension scheme discriminated against Denise Brewster on the ground of marital status and was in breach of the Human Rights Act.

Brewster was denied a survivors' pension after her fiance and partner of 10 years died unexpectedly.

Her partner Leonard McMullan worked for Translink, which provides Northern Ireland's public transport services and been paying into the local government pension scheme.

Following the ruling, pensions administration specialist Trafalgar House, has urged trustees to act now to head off an 'inevitable rise' in member complaints.

Daniel Taylor, director at Trafalgar House, said: "Trustees of private sector pension schemes who think they can dismiss the outcome of the Brewster decision because it applies to Government-backed schemes, should think again."

"The ruling has set an expectation among unmarried individuals that their partner will now be entitled to their pension when they die, so, unless trustees act now to properly inform members about the limits of this ruling, then administrators will be subjected to a flood of complaints."

Taylor said that whenever a case like this hits the press, pension scheme members are given false expectations, leaving scheme administrators on the frontline trying to manage those discussions.

"Unless there is proactivity from schemes to explain that they are unlikely to be affected, then members will assume that this ruling gives their cohabiting partner automatic access to their death benefits."

"This is a difficult situation for schemes and there is the potential for members to stop filling in expression of wish forms nominating their unmarried partner because they now think the law affords automatic protection – a mistake that could have serious implications for families in later life."

First published 23.02.2017

Lindsay.sharman@wilmingtonplc.com