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Unfair Lehman and Nortel pensions decision wrecks the rescue culture

The administrators of 20 Lehman and Nortel companies face meeting Financial Support Directions (FSDs) and Contribution Notices (CNs) from The Pensions Regulator as an expense of the administrations because of the judgment handed down by Mr Justice Briggs.

The implications for the rescue culture are severe - unless the hope expressed by Briggs J

"that a higher court may find a way through or around the existing authorities"

is rewarded as the case is appealed.

The scope of the decision should not be underestimated. Any administration of a company that has been, at any time within the previous two years, an associate or connected to an employer with a defined benefit pension scheme shortfall, has a contingent expense, payable in priority to all other creditors (and the administrators' fees) that could amount to the whole shortfall.

Briggs J clearly reached his decision with considerable misgivings, recognising its unfairness and injustice. He observed, in relation to what he described as "a legislative mess" that

"the Insolvency Service or Parliament might wish to consider a suitable amendment, either to the Rules or to the 2004 Act, if persuaded as I have been that the conferring of super-priority as expenses upon the financial liabilities arising from the FSD regime is both potentially unfair to the target's creditors and inconsistent with a decision taken in 2004 not generally to elevate employees' pension claims above the claims of those creditors."

Such a judgment hardly clarifies the effect of an FSD on an insolvent "target". In reality, the interests of pension scheme members and the Pension Protection Fund have collided with the rescue culture like a wrecking ball.

The judgment merits reading for its detailed consideration of the interaction of insolvency and pensions law, for its analysis of administration expenses and the Toshoku principle, and for the finding that parliament legislated (probably inadvertently) for the pensions/insolvency interaction to be addressed by a mechanism that is not fit for purpose.

 

 

Date: 13th December, 2010
Author: Chris Laughton

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