Dates decided for pensions test cases

The timetable for the personal pensions mis-sale litigation, which started last summer, has recently been decided by the judge at the Bristol Mercantile Court.

The case involved more than 100 plaintiffs who claim bad financial advice prompted them to buy personal pension schemes when allegedly superior occupational schemes were available. The action had been delayed by an unsuccessful attempt, led by five of the major pension scheme providers, for a stay of the litigation at the end of last year.

At the delayed directions hearing last month, the parties broadly agreed on an abbreviated timetable, leading to an early trial date for test cases. Under the timetable, a number of test cases could be heard as early as the end of this year.

Given the scale of the litigation, and the huge importance to the insurance and personal pension industry, His Honour Judge Jack QC has taken a pragmatic approach similar to that seen in analogous group actions such as the Lloyds and Opren litigation.

Under the directions order, pleadings are to be completed in April, discovery and inspection by May-June and witness statements are to be exchanged in July. Much of the detailed formulation of the plaintiffs' claims will be contained in expert actuarial evidence.

The plaintiffs seek discovery of documents from a long list of categories of documents, many of which will be contested, possibly at an interlocutory hearing in July.

The experts will come from two disciplines, actuarial and compliance. Some will meet in August, and all are to report in September. Their evidence is likely to be pivotal to the way cases are decided, possibly affecting the outcome of tens of thousands of pension cases currently being reviewed under the quasi-judicial procedure set up last year by the personal finance industry's regulators, the Securities and Investment Board and the Personal Investment Authority.

There are detailed and complex guidelines set down by the regulators for the assessment of compensation payable to victims of bad advice given between 1988 and 1994. And they are being used by industry consultants to program commissioned computer software packages to carry out possibly hundreds of thousands of calculations. The introduction of the software has been delayed partly because of technical complexities but also because publication by the PIA of the compensation guidelines was only completed in the second half of 1995.

It is possible that if the Bristol court rules that the principles laid down by the regulators' guidelines are wrong, assessments of compensation which have been made under the review will need to be altered, further adding to the delay and cost of the review set up for the benefit of consumers.

If the timetable is followed, then the cases which do not settle in the meantime will be ready for trial as early as October. The Mercantile judge will then review the remaining cases to select four or five of them and hear the first batch of test cases, possibly in December.

Given that many of the plaintiffs opted or transferred out of occupational pension schemes in the public sector, such as the mineworkers' or teachers' schemes, it is likely that the first batch of test cases will fall within one or other of these schemes, possibly the NHS scheme.

If so, then judgment for personal pension policyholders eligible to join occupational pension schemes outside the first batch of test cases will be delayed until well after the New Year.

Fortunately for most of the personal pension policyholders, the pensions review for non-litigants is proceeding as normal, notwithstanding the prospect that its findings in some cases may be affected by the outcome of the litigation.

It is ironic, therefore, that those individuals, mainly trade union-funded, who attempted to jump the queue of priority set down by the regulators in the industry's review of past pension business by choosing to litigate early, may find their attempts have backfired.

The otherwise compulsory provisions of the industry's own scheme, which provides for an earlier completion of the review, may well be disapplied to those which are to be pursued through the courts.