The current situation is constantly evolving and here we look at some useful pointers for pension scheme trustees to enable the smooth running of their virtual meetings.
Do the scheme’s rules allow virtual meetings?
With face-to-face meetings being impossible, governing provisions on virtual meetings need checking. Do your scheme rules, and the articles of association for any trustee company, allow for meetings by telephone conference or video link? It’s also important to ensure any meeting you hold is quorate if individuals are unable to attend, so that decisions taken are valid. Any questions, ask your legal adviser – that’s what we’re here for.
What about the technology?
If some trustees are likely to be unfamiliar with the chosen technology platform, the Chair could issue advance guidance. It’s also a good idea to provide longer than usual notice of a meeting, so as to give participants time to download any software they need. Both video and audio conferencing facilities are prone to glitches and it’s better to get them ironed out before the meeting actually starts.
We’ve all seen unfortunate cabinet ministers on TV where children or family pets interrupt proceedings! While these can be amusing, don’t forget to ensure mobiles are turned off and issue some ground rules to ensure the meeting isn’t disturbed.
Video or audio?
It’s probably best to have a video meeting if possible, as discussions may be easier where trustees can see each other’s faces. This format also helps the Chair to ensure that each trustee has input to decision-making. It’s easier to gauge whether someone agrees or disagrees when you can see them. Provision of documents in advance will allow trustees to print them off if they wish and prepare any questions or discussion points ahead.
A clear structure and agenda
A clear agenda, detailed record keeping and effective chairmanship are key to ensuring all planned business is conducted and all participants play their role. Decisions taken and any action points must be noted.
What about questions?
This is where efficient chairing is essential. Virtual meetings are likely to be shorter and time spend on questions must be well managed. It may be useful for the Chair to pause for questions more frequently and also to ensure each participant has a chance for input.
Can MNTs continue as trustees if they are furloughed?
Member-nominated trustees may be on furlough and one of the conditions of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is that the employee should not then carry out any work for the employer. There’s no Government guidance on this specific point. However, what’s key is that a trustee does have legally distinct functions, duties and obligations from those of an employee. There may be complicating factors to take into account where a trustee is paid, and in such cases you should seek advice so as not to jeopardise the employer’s CJRS claim.
Although tricky, this too can be overcome with proper planning. There is no legal barrier to electronic signing and many more trustee boards are becoming less wedded to “wet ink signatures”. It’s essential, though, to ensure there’s an accurate paper trail, and that everyone is clear which version of a document is being signed. While it’s generally agreed that signature witnesses should not ideally be family members, in these extraordinary times that may be unavoidable, and adult relatives who are not parties to the document can be witnesses.
We can provide you with detailed and specific instructions for circulation to the signatories of various types of document. We can also provide you with a template email to send to each party, setting out the clear and distinct steps which must be taken to ensure that any contracts and deeds signed virtually will be valid.
This can be a concern where trustees are all in their home working environment. However, general awareness that scams and cyber risks are currently heightened should underline the need to take added care when transmitting documents electronically and ensuring the meeting platform is secure.
The new normal?
The pandemic could drag pensions more rapidly into the 21st Century. We’ve found that many trustees actually prefer the virtual approach and have decided to use it for some of their quarterly meetings in future. Also, there’s no need to wait for a formal meeting to reach agreement on some issues – a phone call is enough. Although we hope that trustees will soon be able to in person again, we wish you the best of luck with your virtual meetings in the meantime. As always, we’re here to help. Do contact us if you need to.
This blog post was co-authored by Sophy Lelliott, Trainee.