UK Supreme Court ruling set to boost pensions for 4m public servants

By on 03/07/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Judgment call: UK Supreme Court has ruled the government’s pensions reforms are unlawful (Image courtesy: Yogendra Joshi).

A landmark ruling by the UK Supreme Court on judges’ and firefighters’ pensions could have enormous implications for the wider public sector.

In 2018, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and a group of judges took the government to court over controversial changes to public sector pensions made in 2015. The new rules allowed older workers to continue in their existing pension schemes while younger workers had to transfer to less generous ones. The plaintiffs argued that this was discriminatory not only on the basis of age, but also – because the younger group included more ethnic minorities and women – of race and sex.

The Court of Appeal upheld previous decisions that the changes were unlawful on age, sex and race discrimination grounds at the end of last year. The government requested leave to appeal, but last week the Supreme Court refused the request, saying they had not raised “an arguable point of law”.

£4bn for 4m

Following the decision Shubha Banerjee of Leigh Day solicitors, acting on behalf of the plaintiff judges, told HR news website Personnel Today: “The government’s decision to force younger judges to leave the Judicial Pensions Scheme has been ruled to be unlawfully discriminatory and the government has no further avenues for appeal. We look forward to these wrongs now being corrected.”

With all avenues now closed to the government the case will transfer to an employment tribunal, and the outcome could have far-reaching consequences. In January, chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss estimated that defeat in the courts could cost the government £4bn (US$5bn) annually, with four million public sector staff across the civil service, NHS and local government potentially in line for a payout.

Wrack no guilt

The effects are already beginning to ripple out. This week, GP Online reported that The British Medical Association (BMA) intends to challenge the government over “the discriminatory impact of the pension changes” in a series of test court cases.

Following the ruling Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, told Personnel Today: “This is a hard-fought victory for the union and more importantly for our members. FBU members took action for what they believed to be right, and today, we have been vindicated. We never gave up on our fight for justice, and we are delighted that our perseverance has paid off.”

A Treasury spokesperson told Public Finance that government was “disappointed” by the decision. 

“The government will now consider how best to compensate those affected by the judgment as part of the court process,” he said. “The judgment does not alter the government’s commitment to public sector pensions that are fair to both workers and taxpayers.”

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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