One of the more common complaints before the Pensions Ombudsman concerns reliance on benefit quotations or statements which overstate a member’s entitlement. A common theme is that administrative errors have led to a member being promised more than he is due under a pension scheme.
In such cases, although the rules of the scheme do not entitle the member to be paid the overstated amount, the Ombudsman has the power to uphold a complaint and award the member the higher, overstated amount. He is able to do this if strict criteria are met:
- the member must have relied on the misinformation to his detriment;
- that reliance must be objectively reasonable when compared to the scale of the overstatement; and
- the member must not have known or could not reasonably have been expected to have known that a mistake had been made.
A recent such complaint heard by the Deputy Ombudsman concerned Mrs Mather, a member of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS).
Mrs Mather was a member of the TPS between 1974 and 1978. She received a refund of contributions from the TPS in 1979 but the refund was not recorded by the TPS administrators, the Department of Education and Science. Mrs Mather joined the TPS for a second time in 1986.
Teachers’ Pensions (TP) took over the administration of the TPS. TP did not review the accuracy of Mrs Mather’s pensionable service record until her retirement in 2013. From 2005, TP sent Mrs Mather benefit statements which overstated her pensionable service by four years and therefore overstated her benefits. The statements she received contained the following wording:
“The figures in this Statement are for illustration only. Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, however this Statement confers no right to the benefits quoted.”
When Mrs Mather applied for her retirement benefits, TP noticed the error which had been made and quoted the correct benefits, without explaining to Mrs Mather why the figures differed from those contained in the statements previously issued. Once she had established what had happened, Mrs Mather complained to TP. Her complaint was rejected, and so she approached the Ombudsman.
Mrs Mather was able to produce evidence which proved that she had forgotten about receiving the refund in 1979. At that time Mrs Mather had been unwell and her husband had completed the relevant forms on her behalf. She had made financial decisions around retirement in reliance on the amounts quoted in the statements.
TP argued that as a result of the wording in the statements, the benefits were not guaranteed. The Deputy Ombudsman accepted this but focused on the words “Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy”. She noted that in fact, every effort had not been made to ensure accuracy. By asserting that every effort had been made, TP had created the expectation that the details held by TP were correct. As the strict criteria noted above had been met, Mrs Mather was entitled to receive the overstated benefits, albeit these were adjusted to take account of the refund which had been paid in 1979 (plus interest).
If the assurance as to the accuracy of the figures had not been given, this claim may not have succeeded. Nevertheless, some important lessons can be drawn from it, not least because it is not unusual to read such wording in a disclaimer. Employers and trustees should ensure that scheme administrators have robust governance procedures in place, to avoid errors being made. They should also ensure that promises which are not true are not made in statements sent to members as they could potentially result in the trustees being liable to pay benefits to members in excess of the amounts due.
 Mrs Sheila Mather – Pensions Ombudsman Determination – PO-5291