High Court grants hearing for USS legal challenge

The High Court has granted university academics permission for a future hearing for both sides to determine whether a claim in relation to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) 2020 valuation process can proceed.

This initial stage was previously rejected, with the main issue cited being the highly technical legal question of whether this type of claims is available at all for the claimants in these circumstances.

However, Justice Leech has now overturned the initial decision, granting permission for a hearing with both parties to determine whether the claim can proceed, which is expected to be held after 22 March.

In light of the decision, Dr Ewan McGaughey, who is one of those leading the legal action, called for an immediate pause in the "reckless cuts" proposed to the scheme, which the USS recently confirmed it intends to proceed with, despite ongoing strike action.

He stated: “This is only the first step in a number of steps we’ve got to take, because what Justice Leech has said is that we can proceed to the next stage of the hearing, which will be between the parties, which will determine whether we can stand in the shoes of university pension and bring claims of duty against the directors.

“We welcome the judgemnts of Justice Leech, and we very much hope that we can have a full and fair hearing about all these issues.

"USS needs to halt these vicious cuts. It needs to see what happened in court and it needs to halt what it is doing right now."

The legal action relates to four key claims, including concerns over the date of the 2020 pension scheme valuation, as it argues that the valuation of the pension amid a stock market crash, and its methodology, was a “breach of duty” .

The claimants have also argued that the proposed cuts to the USS amount to discrimination, as they hit women, ethnic minorities and young people the most, and have not undertaken an impact assessment.

In addition to this, they argued that there has been “massive cost inflation” at the USS, arguing that the scheme should cut costs rather than pension benefits, as well as concerns around the scheme’s failure to divest from fossil fuels.

However, USS trustees emphasised that the scheme was not involved in the initial hearing on Monday 28 February, also stressing that there was “no significant consideration or endorsement by the judge of the underlying merits of the claim”.

More broadly, the USS trustees reiterated their initial statement from November 2021, which said that they were “comfortable” that the legal challenge has “absolutely no merit”

It stated: “Everyone at USS is motivated by a clear duty to keep members’ valuable pensions funded, so that members – and employers – can save for the future with confidence.

"We understand the concerns of USS members, faced with proposals connected with the 2020 actuarial valuation for higher contributions or benefits that will build up more slowly in the future.

"We know that not all members agree with the valuation decisions we have taken, as trustee.

"But those hard decisions have been made balancing the interests of all USS members (pensioners, dependants, members who have left but not yet taken their benefits, and active members), after extensive debate and with the benefit of appropriate expert advice.

"Nothing in the legal papers served on the trustee or otherwise justifies such a step, so we are comfortable that the challenge – whether in respect of the valuation, expenses or investment – has absolutely no merit.

"In the interests of USS members, the trustee will ask the High Court to refuse permission and thus avoid wasted costs for members and the scheme."

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