Trust documents are commonly understood to include ‘those which evidence or record the nature, value and condition of trust assets.’ Relevantly, trust documents have been distinguished from those which are merely prepared by the trustee for their own purposes, with Hartigan Nominees deeming that documents which disclose deliberations about how the trustee should exercise their discretionary powers, are not trust documents. Similarly, certain correspondence between trustees does not constitute trust documents.
While beneficiaries of a trust have a prima facie right to inspect trust documents, disputes between the beneficiaries of a trust and Trustees, regarding access to documents and information are commonly encountered, with case law offering competing perspectives as to the circumstances which give rise to the provision of trust documents to beneficiaries.
In Re Londonderry’s Settlement, the Court held that as trust documents are property of the trust, the beneficiaries retain a proprietary interest in them. In doing so, it noted that this interest in trust property gives rise to the right to access trust documents.
Conversely, in Schmidt v Rosewood Trust, the court held that a beneficiary does not have an equitable interest that gives rise to an inherent right to view trust documents and that a trustee may therefore refuse a beneficiary’s request to inspect trust documents. However, as the Court retains an inherent jurisdiction to oversee the correct administration of trusts, a beneficiary may seek that the Court compel the trustee to enable inspection by the beneficiary.
Although the High Court is yet to make an explicit ruling as to the preferred approach, it relied on Schmidt in the 2017 decision of Palmer v Ayres to support the Court’s authority to compel the provision of information. Schmidt has also been followed in recent cases in the both the Federal Court and the New South Wales Supreme Court, whilst the Victorian Supreme Court relied on the Londonderry approach in the 2016 decision of Duetsch v Trumble.
In circumstances where the Court has adopted the Schmidt approach, it has relied on the following considerations to determine whether disclosure is warranted to safeguard the proper administration of the trust:
- Scope of requested documents
The Courts have traditionally been less inclined to grant access where the beneficiary seeks a wide scope of documents. Relevantly, requests for access to all documents have typically been perceived as a ‘fishing expedition’, with the Court instead favouring access in circumstances where select documents are sought to address a specific issue in the administration of the trust.
- Documents already disclosed
The disclosure of trust documents serves to ensure the beneficiary has sufficient information to evaluate the proper administration of the trust. As such, if a Court deems that the trustee has already made genuine attempts to provide appropriate information, it will likely determine that no further disclosure is required.
Trustees have traditionally been entitled to reject access to trust documents containing confidential information on the basis that disclosure is not in the best interest of all beneficiaries. Although there exists debate over whether confidentiality remains a full defence to disclosure, Justice Hammerschalg in Silkman posited that is nevertheless remains a necessary consideration.
In some circumstances a trust deed may contain a provision which mandates that the details of the trust remain secret from its beneficiaries. Although the courts are yet to consider whether such a provision inhibits disclosure, the existence of a secrecy provision will likely be a relevant consideration of the Court in determining whether to exercise its discretion.
As the Court’s jurisdiction to intervene in trust matters serves to ensure proper administration of the trust, access will only be granted where beneficiaries ought to be privy to the documents. As such, if the requested documents will not cure a deficiency in the trust, the court is unlikely to exercise its discretion to order disclosure. To date, case law fails to signal a clear precedent as to how a court will determine a beneficiary’s request to access to trust documents, however, it does appear that the limited approach contained in Schmidt is being preferred by courts over the expansive approach contained in Londonderry.
Wiebke Herrmann is a Director at James Conomos Lawyers where she practices in the areas of insolvency, bankruptcy and commercial litigation. If you are a beneficiary of a trust seeking to access trust documents or a trustee in receipt of a request to access trust documents and would like further information, please do not hesitate to contact her.
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