Pensions duel could be deadly for Equitable Life

Denton Hall and Norton Rose are advising in a High Court test case which could sound the death knell of the UK's largest mutual life insurer.

A Denton Hall team, led by senior partner in litigation and arbitration Cindy Leslie, is fighting on behalf of Equitable Life in the case, which concerns guaranteed annuities. If it loses the case, the insurer faces u1.5bn liability costs, which would leave it vulnerable to takeover bids by rivals.

Equitable Life is launching the action against Alan Hyman – one of 15 policyholders who took the case to the Personal Investment Authority ombudsman in 1998.

Hyman, who is representative of more than 100,000 pension savers, was told he could only have the guaranteed income if he accepted a smaller pension fund.

The guarantees were offered to customers in the 1970s and 1980s, but falling interest rates coupled with increasing life expectancies have made the policies more expensive to honour.

Now Equitable Life is seeking a declaration that it has powers to allot final bonuses to pensioners who take a guaranteed annuity in retirement.

Peter Hardy, a litigation partner at Norton Rose is advising Hyman. He says Norton Rose was instructed just before Christmas, giving the lawyers a limited amount of time to work on the complex case.

“This is a very intensive case and there is a real urgency about it. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets for the pensioners involved,”says Hardy.

Hardy is assisted by litigation partner Sue Dingwall and banking solicitor Nicola Bett, while Leslie is assisted by senior partner in corporate Simon Brown and litigation solicitor Nicholas Sargent.