Construction of Superannuation Deeds

The High Court of Australia has confirmed that superannuation schemes are strict trusts and not discretionary trusts.

This view has also been expressed in other Australian decisions.

Burchett JA in Hay v Total Risk Management Pty Limited [2004] NSWSC 94 made reference at [54] to what Bryson J stated in Vidovic v Email Superannuation Pty Ltd (unreported, Supreme Court of New South Wales, Bryson J, 3 March 1995):

“It is a marked anomaly to use mechanisms drawn from fields of law remote from employment and relating to trusts for bounty or charity to administer important entitlements in an employment relationship. I find it difficult to understand why the entrenchment of such important rights against review is so usual, and why this kind of arrangement is so commonly found acceptable to employees in view of the economic significance of such decisions and the economic function of superannuation, not well represented in the terms of the documents, as a contracted employment benefit for which value is given. These anomalies appear particularly clearly where, as in this case, the fund out of which benefits are paid is contributory and an employee claiming benefits is claiming to be paid, at least in part, in his own coin. In an arrangement with a contractual character in which value is given in the expectation that a benefit will be available in stated circumstances, a construction in which one party has an entire and unreviewable power to determine whether that party will pay a sum of money to the other or retain it in its own funds has an element of absurdity. Language which appears to produce such a result serves to demonstrate the strength of the expectation of all concerned that the exercise of the power will be honest and reasonable. It is only on that expectation that the transaction could, as a practical matter, be expected to take place at all, and there would have to be an entirely explicit exclusion of such an expectation before language literally capable of excluding it should be given that construction. The context of the employment relationship has an influence which it is impossible to exclude from judicial scrutiny and perceptions of reasonableness of decisions under superannuation deeds.”

The observations of Bryson J were also cited with approval by Finn J in Kowalski v MMAL Staff Superannuation Fund Pty Ltd [2008] FCA 691.

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