Action on exit fee planned

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The Independent Online
A LEADING firm of pensions lawyers is forming an action group with the aim of taking Legal & General to court over discontinuance charges it is imposing on company pension schemes.

The London-based lawyer, Hammond Suddards, is concerned that the charges could be applied to any of the 700 schemes with pounds 1bn invested on behalf of thousands of people.

They could also leave schemes insolvent and unable to meet members' pensions liabilities.

The charges will in effect bar companies from switching their money to better performing pension fund managers, and members could be substantially worse off. The pensions lawyer decided to set up the action group because Legal & General is attempting to impose a pounds 750,000 exit charge on a pension fund valued at pounds 3.7m. The charge represents 20 per cent of the value of the pension fund.

The company switching the pension fund, Preston-based CCA Stationery, has been embroiled in a two-year battle to try and get the charge reduced.

Jeremy Scholes, CCA Stationery's managing director, said: 'Two years ago, I became concerned with the returns offered by Legal & General and decided that a better rate of return could be achieved with another fund manager. We thought that it would be better for the company overall.'

CCA Stationery produces personalised stationery. The company employs 300 people and has an annual turnover of pounds 15m.

'We spoke to L&G to notify them of our intention to switch the money to Guinness Mahon,' Mr Scholes said.

The company then told him about the discontinuance penalty. 'It is imposed in a unilateral and arbitary manner. The charge must be applied for breaking a contract, but it must not be punitive.'

He added that the fund was comfortably in surplus and that there was no danger of it becoming insolvent.

CCA has succeeded in switching the rest of the fund to be managed by Guinness Mahon but is still in dispute over the pounds 750,000 discontinuance penalty.

Mark McKeown, a solicitor with Hammond Suddards, which is acting for CCA Stationery, said that it was attempting to get together companies that are trying to switch pensions invested in Legal & General's AF80 or MP90 contracts. These contracts invest in Legal & General's with-profits fund, which is invested in UK equities and gilts.

He added that he had had contact with about 20 companies that could find themselves in a similar position.

Mr McKeown said: 'Legal & General says that it is not an exit penalty, and that its level relates to the level of bonuses attributed to the fund.'

Legal & General reserves the right to apply a 'market value adjustment factor' to the fund, if certain stock market conditions prevail.

The company said that over the three years from 1990 to 1992 the market conditions had been very poor. The company's actuary, in common with many other life companies, continued to give bonuses to the fund, despite the fact that returns on the UK stock markets were very low or even - in 1990 - negative.

L&G said that if CCA Stationery had waited for a year before trying to switch the money there might have been less of a market value adjustment applied.

Chris Hairs, L&G's appointed actuary, refused to comment directly on the CCA case. He said: 'A market value adjustment factor of this kind has to be applied to keep the balance between those that choose to stay in the fund and those that move out.'

(Photograph omitted)

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