In what was to become an overly protracted and yet hotly debated case, the question of trust instrument validity and the limiting scope of trust powers, fell upon the English courts to answer, when what appeared at the time was judicial wisdom, later proved a confused doctrine that polluted similar cases in the years following its declaration.
Having become the director of a highly successful M&E company first established in 1927, and as a man of inherent providence, the deceased had taken it upon himself to draft a trust deed in 1941, that would allow his current and former employees to benefit from financial gifts on a potentially recurring basis, while in addition to this their immediate relatives were also to enjoy similar windfalls, as was contained in clause 9(a) of the trust, which read that:
“The trustees shall apply the net income of the fund in making at their absolute discretion grants to or for benefit of any of the officers and employees or ex-officers or ex-employees of the company or to any relatives or dependants of any such persons in such amounts at such times and on such conditions (if any) as they think fit and any such grant may at their discretion be made by payment to the beneficiary or to any institution or person to be applied for his or her benefit and in the latter case the trustees shall be under no obligation to see the application of the money…”
However upon his death in 1960, the appointed executors notified the trustees that the trust was void for uncertainty, as it would be almost impossible to distinguish one employee from another, never mind any relatives known to exist at the time of his passing, which was a position adopted in light of the company’s growth from 110 to 1,300 employees during the preceding years.
Commencing by way of an originating summons in 1967, the trustees argued that clause 9(a) merely represented a power to distribute funds to a class of beneficiaries, while the executors held that the use of the word ‘shall’ created instead, a mandatory trust that once unable to be fully executed, would nullify itself and thus fall within the residual estate.
In the first instance, the Court of Chancery examined the construction of the deed, and found that due to discretionary nature of clause 9(a), the trust conferred a power upon the trustees, and not an immutable instruction that once unfulfilled, rendered the trust void for uncertainty; a statement upon which the executors challenged the findings in the Court of Appeal.
Here, the court referred to In re Gestetner Settlement, in which Harman J had held that when ascertaining the exactness of a trust deed beneficiary class:
“[T]he trustees must worry their heads to survey the world from China to Peru…”
Which was to suggest an immense undertaking for trustees, unless it could be proven that the deed conferred a mere power, in which case, reasonable certainty of the beneficiary class ought then be shown. In light of this precedent, the court subsequently held that as before, the context of clause 9(a) was such that the trustees were afforded discretionary powers, and so held that:
“[C]lause 9 of the deed may properly be construed as the judge did, by holding that it creates a power and not a trust…”
At which point the executors along with the deceased’s widow, pursued their argument before the House of Lords on grounds that clause 9(a) represented a mandatory trust, and that as such, the ruling in the recent Inland Revenue Commissioners v Broadway Cottages directed the decision of the court when it held that:
“[A] trust for such members of a given class of objects as the trustees shall select is void for uncertainty, unless the whole range of objects eligible for selection is ascertained or capable of ascertainment…”
Which it was argued, was now impossible due to the vast number of both former and existing employees, causal employees and extended family members; a contention that left the House allowing the appeal by way of reference back to the Chancery Court for greater clarification, while also holding that in their opinion:
“[T]he trust is valid if it can be said with certainty that any given individual is or is not a member of the class.”
Once again in 1972, the court reviewed the position on the wording, and thereby meaning of trusts and powers, along with the validity of the trust in relation to s.164 of the Law of Property Act 1925, which stipulated that:
“1. No person may by any instrument or otherwise settle or dispose of any property in such manner that the income thereof shall…be wholly or partially accumulated for any longer period than one of the following…(a)the life of the grantor or settlor; or (b) a term of twenty one years from the death of the grantor, settlor or testator…”
And so with a thoughtful, albeit exhaustible, examination of the deed, the court held that a discretionary trust did exist, and that despite the 31 years since its execution, such an instrument was valid when called into purpose, which echoed the sentiment of the House when the court further held that the trust was valid on the principle that there were sufficient company records to show, and thereby establish, who was reasonably eligible for the benefit of the funds when distributed by the trustees, upon which the executors challenged the judgment before the Court of Appeal one final time.
Here, the executors argued that unless an individual could not be proven as falling outside the scope of the trust, the trust must fail, while the court reasoned that while operating within the bounds of practicality, the trustees had shown that they were equipped to trace staff records back to the inception of the company, and thereby allocate the majority of employees and their immediate relatives, whereupon the court conclusively dismissed the appeal, while simply holding that:
“[A] trust for selection will not fail simply because the whole range of objects cannot be ascertained.”