"A trust instrument may state expressly that the protector's powers are held in a fiduciary capacity but that will not always be the case."
"Once it is established that a protector holds fiduciary powers, it is clear that the court will be able to remove the protector, or to appoint someone else to the role, in certain circumstances."
"In appropriate cases, the court will exercise its inherent jurisdiction to protect the welfare of beneficiaries and ensure the competent administration of trusts."

Protectors: are their powers fiduciary and does the court have power to intervene?

15 Mar 2016

This briefing formed the basis of a presentation delivered by Zillah Howard at the IBC conference "Challenging Fiduciary Decisions" held in London on 3 March 2016.

Protectors feature regularly in Jersey trusts, being appointed by settlors as a means of ensuring that there will be some element of control over the exercise of the trustees' powers.

However, before choosing to appoint a protector, careful thought should be given to ensure that the role is fully understood and is consistent with the settlor's overall objectives for the trust structure. It will also be helpful to consider whether the protector will be able to exercise his powers as he wishes or only in the interests of the beneficiaries, and whether the court will be able to intervene. This briefing focuses on three questions in this context:

  1. Does a protector hold powers as a fiduciary?
  2. Can the court remove and appoint protectors with fiduciary powers?
  3. Can the court control the exercise of a protector's powers?

1. Does a protector hold powers as a fiduciary?
In relation to the first question, perhaps the first point to note is that the word "protector" is not a term of art and, although power-holders such as protectors are implicitly recognized by the Trusts (Jersey) Law 1984 (the "Trusts Law"), the term is not expressly defined. The word "protector" can be used to describe a person holding a variety of different powers. Some of those powers can be positive, such as the power to appoint trustees or successor protectors.  Other powers may be negative powers or powers of veto, so that the trustees cannot exercise certain of their powers - such as the power to make distributions, or to sell a key trust asset - without the protector's consent.

As the powers held by a protector vary from one trust to another, it is a question of construction of each trust instrument to determine the nature of the powers held.  A protector might hold some powers in a beneficial or personal capacity (so that he can exercise them for his own benefit, without restriction); some powers in a limited capacity (in which case he is not required to consider from time to time whether or not to exercise his powers but, if he does exercise them, he must only do so for the purposes for which the power was conferred, for the benefit of one or more of the beneficiaries); and other powers in a fiduciary capacity. Where powers are held in a fiduciary capacity, the protector will be required to consider from time to time whether or not to exercise his powers and, when he does exercise them, he must do so in the interests of the beneficiaries as a whole.

A trust instrument may state expressly that the protector's powers are held in a fiduciary capacity but that will not always be the case.  In the recent Jersey case of re Jasmine Trustees Limited [2015] JRC 196, the Royal Court was called upon to consider the power to appoint successor protectors. The case involved two family trusts - the Piedmond Trust and the Riviera Trust. In the Piedmont Trust, a majority of the adult beneficiaries had the power to appoint successor protectors; in the Riviera Trust, this power was vested in the protector.  The court agreed with the parties that the power to appoint successor protectors was a fiduciary power for the following reasons:

(1) The protector's role was fiduciary in both trusts.  This was stated expressly in the Piedmont Trust. Although there was no express statement in the Riviera Trust, various factors pointed to the role being fiduciary:

(a) an analysis of the nature and extent of the protector's powers (for example, the protector had wide-ranging powers, including the power to appoint trustees which is generally accepted to be a fiduciary power);

(b) the fact that the powers were given to an office holder with provision for succession;

(c) there were provisions enabling the protector to release a power notwithstanding its fiduciary nature; and

(d) there were provisions allowing the protector to charge.

(2) Earlier authorities support the proposition that, where the role of the protector is fiduciary, the power to appoint a successor to that role will also be fiduciary.  The Royal Court decisions  in re Bird Charitable Trust [2008] JLR 1 and re HHH Trust [2012] JRC 127B contain provisions to this effect, as does the decision from the Cayman Islands in re Circle Trust [2006] CILR 323.

(3) The original protector of both trusts was one of the beneficiaries and the court acknowledged that the protector's fiduciary obligations were qualified to an extent, as the trust instrument contemplated that a protector could exercise certain powers in a manner which would benefit himself.  However, this did not alter the essential nature of the protector's powers:  they were still fiduciary and, therefore, the power to appoint successors to the role of protector was itself a fiduciary power.

2. Can the court remove and appoint protectors with fiduciary powers?
Once it is established that a protector holds fiduciary powers, it is clear that the court will be able to remove the protector, or to appoint someone else to the role, in certain circumstances.

(1) Power to remove protectors
In the case of re Freiburg Trust 2004 JLR N-13, the protector had been convicted of fraud in Belgium and sentenced to imprisonment.  His fraudulent activities had included misappropriating monies from the Freiburg Trust.  He had disappeared.

The protector's consent was required in relation to the exercise of the trustees' powers to distribute capital and income.  The trustees had limited powers to remove a protector, but those powers were not applicable in the situation that had arisen:  they were confined to situations involving a lack of capacity or insolvency.

The court acknowledged that there is no express statutory power to remove protectors within the Trusts Law.  However, it held that it has an inherent jurisdiction to remove a protector from office for due cause. The protector was a fiduciary and the court "must have power to police the activities of any fiduciary in relation to a trust whether he be called a protector or indeed by any other name.  Such a jurisdiction is a necessary incident of the duties to protect the interests of beneficiaries".

The court removed the protector, commenting that there could be few clearer cases calling for the exercise of its jurisdiction.  The individual in question was the "antithesis" of what a protector should be.  Rather than protecting the trust, he had actually defrauded it and misappropriated part of the trust fund.

In the more recent case of re the A Trust [2012] JRC 169A, beneficiaries of two trusts issued proceedings seeking the removal of the protector.  It was clear to the Royal Court that relations between those beneficiaries had broken down irretrievably and that the majority of the other adult beneficiaries also wanted him to go.

The court found that the root of the problem was the protector's perception that his role was to act as the enforcer of the settlor's wishes.  On this point, the court said that a protector's duty was no higher than to do his best to see that the trustees had due regard to the settlor's wishes. From the moment of his acceptance of office, the protector's paramount duty was to the beneficiaries.

The court decided that the test for the removal of a protector is the same as that used by Lord Blackburn in relation to trustees in the Privy Council decision in Letterstedt v Broers (1884) 9 App. Cas. 371 at 386, 387. The test is whether the protector's continuation in office "would be detrimental to the execution of the trusts".

In appropriate cases, the court will exercise its inherent jurisdiction to protect the welfare of beneficiaries and ensure the competent administration of trusts.  Not every instance of friction or hostility will justify a protector's removal:  the court will look to see whether the breakdown in relations is such as to have a detrimental effect on the execution (administration) of the trust.

In this case, the court concluded that it was appropriate to remove the protector (who was reluctant to retire). There was mutual hostility and distrust between the beneficiaries and the protector which had led to a serious breakdown in relations that was "quite plainly having a seriously detrimental effect on the execution of the trusts and was likely to continue to do so".

The court referred to the Freiburg Trust case, noting that it was an exceptional case. The court did not think that its jurisdiction to remove protectors should be confined to extreme cases, although it acknowledged that it was not a jurisdiction to be exercised lightly.

(2) Power to appoint protectors.
Just as the court can remove a protector with fiduciary powers in appropriate cases, there is also authority to suggest that the court can appoint a protector where that is necessary to ensure the workability of a trust.

In the Isle of Man case of Rawcliffe v Steele [1993 - 95] MLR 426 IoM SGD, the trust instrument provided for the protector's consent in relation to the exercise of the trustees' powers to distribute capital and income, and the protector also had the power to appoint new or additional trustees.

Unfortunately, no protector was appointed when the trust was created, and so the question as to the court's power of appointment arose in that context.  The court held that it could appoint a protector with fiduciary powers in the same way that it could appoint a trustee in order to prevent a trust from failing for want of a trustee.

The Cayman decision in re Circle Trust [2006] CILR 323 also refers to the availability of the power to appoint new protectors, as does the Royal Court decision in re the VR Family Trust [2009] JLR 202.

3. Can the court control the exercise of a protector's powers?
As well as the court being able to remove and appoint protectors in appropriate cases, the next question to consider is whether the court can also control the exercise of a protector's powers (such as the power to appoint successor protectors), where those powers are held in a fiduciary capacity?

The case of Jasmine Trustees Limited, as referred to above, demonstrates that the court can indeed do so, albeit within certain limits.  As noted above, the case concerned two family trusts: the Piedmont Trust and the Riviera Trust. The father was the original protector of both trusts. He had three children: two sons who lived in the US and a daughter who lived in the UK. The father, his three children and their children were all included within the class of beneficiaries. The protector had wide-ranging powers, including the power to appoint and remove trustees in respect of both trusts, and the power to appoint successor protectors in relation to the Riviera Trust. (The power to appoint successor protectors of the Piedmont Trust was held by a majority of the adult beneficiaries).

As explained above, the protector's power to appoint successor protectors was considered to be fiduciary. It was also accepted that the power to appoint new trustees was a fiduciary power.

The court held that the holder of a fiduciary power must not act irrationally i.e. he must not reach a decision which no reasonable power holder could arrive at.  The court will declare an appointment invalid if the decision is irrational in this sense.

The court explained that it exercises its supervisory jurisdiction in relation to trusts to protect beneficiaries.  It expressed the view that it would be an abandonment of that role to decline to intervene and to require beneficiaries to live with a decision which no reasonable power-holder could have arrived at, noting that an ability to sue for breach of trust is often unlikely to provide a suitable remedy.

The court recognized that a settlor chooses a power-holder to exercise the power, and not the court.  The court cannot overturn a decision just because it would have reached a different decision (or if it considers the decision to be mistaken).  However, it can overturn a decision which falls outside the band of decisions within which reasonable disagreement is possible and becomes a decision which no reasonable power-holder could arrive at, and is therefore irrational.

When exercising the power to appoint successor protectors, the court held that the protector's duty was the same as in relation to the power to appoint new trustees, and required the protector:

(i) to act in good faith and in the interests of the beneficiaries as a whole;
(ii) to reach a decision open to a reasonable appointor;
(iii) to take into account relevant matters and only those matters; and
(iv) not to act for an ulterior purpose.

The father had exercised his powers as protector to appoint his two sons as the successor protectors of the Riviera Trust.  (All of the adult beneficiaries other than the daughter had executed a deed appointing the two sons as the successor protectors of the Piedmont Trust).

The court noted that relations between the father (the protector) and his daughter had been difficult, following an acrimonious divorce from her mother which had lasted nearly a decade.

The father had asked the daughter to sign a release document as a condition of the father paying for a lease extension on her London property. The release document included a release in relation to any property owned by her father and a release in respect of any interest she might have in four companies, said to be owned by her two brothers in different proportions.

The provisions of the release document shocked the daughter as she had understood that she was a one-third shareholder of each of the four companies. The daughter did not sign the release document.  This led to a complete breakdown in relations, with there having been no contract between the daughter and her brothers since then. The daughter issued proceedings in the US, claiming her rights as a shareholder in the four companies.

The court noted that the decision to appoint the sons as successor protectors could not be questioned on the grounds that they might have adverse interests to the daughter and her family because the sons and their families were also beneficiaries. As noted above, the father was the original protector despite being a beneficiary and the trusts therefore contemplated a protector who could consent to appointments which would benefit him or his family.

However, in the light of events in recent years, the court held that the father's decision to appoint the sons as successor protectors was irrational and declared the appointments invalid.   The court's reasons included the following:

(1) Whilst not every conflict of interest makes a protector's position untenable, the court considered that the US litigation gave rise to a very significant conflict of interest, making it impossible for the sons to be considered to be in a position to act fairly as protectors. The litigation was hostile between the daughter on the one hand, and the two people proposed to acts as protectors (her brothers) on the other hand.

(2) Whilst the two sons were otherwise well qualified to fulfil a fiduciary role (with one of them being a partner in a law firm), the court noted their previous record of being willing to do as their father wished, and paying little attention to their fiduciary responsibilities as directors in connection with the execution of company documents.  In the circumstances, the court considered that the daughter had legitimate concerns as to the manner in which her brothers might discharge their proposed roles as protectors.

(3) There was a breakdown in relations between the daughter and her brothers, making it impossible for the brothers to be seen to be in a position to act fairly as successor protectors. The proposed appointments would have a seriously detrimental effect on the administration of the trust. The daughter would be likely to challenge the protectors' decisions if she felt they were contrary to her interests, and there was also a risk that her brothers might lean over backwards in an attempt to agree to the daughter's requests, thereby prejudicing the position of the other beneficiaries.

Conclusion
Looking back at the three questions, the answer to question one is very much: it depends.  Whether or not a protector holds powers as a fiduciary will be a matter of construction, requiring consideration of the terms of the trust instrument and the nature of the powers held by the protector in order to determine the nature of those powers and, therefore, how they can be exercised. Where powers are held in a fiduciary capacity, the protector will be obliged to consider from time to time whether or not to exercise them and, if he does decide to do so, he must act in the interests of the beneficiaries as a whole.

In relation to the second and third questions, it is clear that the court will exercise its inherent jurisdiction in appropriate cases, whether to remove or appoint protectors with fiduciary powers, or to control the exercise of those fiduciary powers.

As noted above, careful thought should be given when deciding whether or not a new trust structure should incorporate a protector.  As part of the decision-making process, it will be helpful to bear in mind that, if the protector is to hold powers in a fiduciary capacity, there will be constraints placed upon the manner in which he can exercise his powers and, in turn, the court will be able to intervene in appropriate cases, to protect the interests of the beneficiaries and to ensure the competent administration of the trust. Carefully considered in this context, the appointment of a protector can incorporate a welcome measure of control in relation to the exercise of trustees' powers in appropriate cases.