Personal Equality and Group Benefits

How can individuals be treated equally and yet have their characteristics merged for the purpose of spreading rights to payment over a large group? This question comes up in designing pension plans and insurance premiums. Two recent decisions seem to point in opposite directions.

The Supreme Court of Canada today released its decision in a case about pension benefits and survivor rights. Withler & Fitzsimonds and Attorney General of Canada. The Court upheld the lower courts in finding that reducing a supplementary death benefit to a surviving spouse according to the age of the pension plan member at death did not violate s. 15 of the Charter.

The European Court of Justice has decided that insurance companies may no longer set different rates for men and women, based on different claims experience or life expectancies. The case is based on an EU Directive on “the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the access to and supply of goods and services.”

Both courts have much to say about what is essential to equality and what is not. Can their decisions be reconciled? If not, which is ‘right’, and according to what principle? To what extent can one pull people out of an arrangement that depends on spreading the risk, based on their individual characteristics? At some point one loses the benefit of the group, but at some other point making everyone pay or receive the same amount is unfair. Do these decisions help draw the line?

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