A recent court victory for the surviving partner of a member of the Northern Ireland council pension fund could have implications for English and Welsh funds, the Local Government Association has warned.
In February, the Supreme Court ruled that Denise Brewster should be entitled to survivor benefits from the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers Superannuation Committee, following the death of her partner Lenny McMullan, a pension scheme member.
Jeff Houston, head of pensions at the LGA, said although the judgement in Ms Brewster’s case only applied to her and to the NILGSOC, English and Welsh schemes have already received letters from lawyers acting on behalf of people in a similar situation to Ms Brewster and it was likely that the courts would look favourably on their cases. The issue could affect all public sector pension schemes, and it is not known how many cases there could be in the English and Welsh LGPS funds, he added.
“The government is reviewing its position,” said Mr Houston.
Mr McMullen and Ms Brewster lived together for ten years and got engaged in 2009. Mr McMullen died three days later. The Northern Ireland scheme does not automatically provide survivor benefits to scheme members’ partners unless they are married, but unmarried members may nominate a cohabiting partner using a specific form.
Mr McMullen had not nominated Ms Brewster using this form but the court ruled that in this case, the requirement to do so was discriminatory and the scheme’s refusal to pay her a pension was unlawful.
Since the implementation of a new benefits structure in 2014, English and Welsh Local Government Pension Scheme funds have automatically granted survivor benefits to unmarried partners of deceased members, without the need for any paperwork, provided the couple had been cohabiting for at least two years.
However, the LGA has warned the judgement creates the possibility for surviving, unmarried partners of English and Welsh scheme members who died between 2008 and 2014, who had not been formally named as beneficiaries, to come forward and claim survivor benefits.
Mr Houston said English and Welsh sections of the LGPS and other public sector schemes could wait for “a deluge of claims” for surviving partners’ pensions, which the funds “would probably lose”, or decide to pre-empt this and take action now.
He said the government has the power to compel its own schemes, such as that for civil servants, to identify and make provision for this group of surviving partners, and could attempt to force English and Welsh LGPS funds to do the same, although current LGPS regulations do not allow it.
Mr Houston added that retrospectively making provision for this group of surviving partners could affect pensions currently paid to the children of deceased scheme members.
“The amount of pension paid to any qualifying children depends on whether there is a surviving partner receiving a pension,” said Mr Houston.
“So if we put a surviving partner pension into payment, we’d have to adjust those children’s pensions downwards.”