Are beneficiary's always entitled to access trust documents?

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Confidentiality

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.

  1. Secrecy

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.

  1. Necessity

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.

Federal Court rules 'casual'​ worker entitled to paid leave

The Federal Court of Australia recently handed down a significant decision in the matter of WorkPac Pty Ltd v Rossato [2020] FCAFC 84, redefining Australia’s employment law landscape.

Mr Rossato was employed by WorkPac between July 2014 and April 2018. During this time, he supplied labour to companies within the Glencore Group under six consecutive contracts, all of which specified that he was a casual employee.

As such, WorkPac contended that pursuant to sections 86, 95 and 106 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), Mr Rossato was employed on a casual basis and was therefore not entitled to paid annual leave, compassionate leave or personal/careers leave. Further, it contended that section 116 precluded Mr Rossato from claiming payment for public holidays. Finally, WorkPac sought declarations that as a ‘Casual Field Member’, Mr Rossato was barred from claiming corresponding entitlements under the applicable enterprise agreement.

In the event that the Court found against WorkPac’s submissions, it sought declarations that it was entitled to restitution of the casual loading included in Mr Rossato’s hourly rate.

WorkPac noted that casual employment arises in the absence of a “firm advance commitment as to the duration of the employee’s employment or the days/ hours the employee will work.” Despite this, it asserted that as the terms of Mr Rossato’s contract specified that he was a casual employee, there was no need to have regard to how the contract was performed in practice.

The Court rejected this argument, contending that the presence or absence of the “firm advance commitment” should be assessed with regard to the employment contract as a whole. In doing so, it noted that whilst the description of the party’s relationship is relevant, it is not conclusive, and regard should also be had to whether WorkPac:

  • provided for the employment to be regular or intermittent;
  • permitted Mr Rossato to elect whether to offer employment on a particular day; and
  • permitted Mr Rossato to elect whether to work and the duration of the employment.

The Court concluded that in spite of the language used in his employment contract, Mr Rossato was not a casual worker under the Fair Work Act or the Enterprise Agreement. Rather, the parties had agreed on employment of indefinite duration, which was stable, regular and predictable. As such, Mr Rossato was entitled to paid annual leave, paid personal/carer’s leave, paid compassionate leave and payment for public holidays.

The Court also rejected WorkPac’s claim for restitution for the causal loading paid to Mr Rossato, contending there was no relevant mistake and no failure of consideration.

Ultimately, this case highlights the need for employer’s to carefully consider the nature of work being undertaken by staff in order to prevent the risk of ‘double dipping’. It follows the 2018 decision of WorkPac v Skene [2018] FCAFC 131 which similarly held that employees who receive casual loadings may nevertheless be entitled to annual and personal leave.