You cannot trust the public trustee

The story they told men was a cunningly devised fable; the gospels they preached to them were not an account of man’s real position in this world, but an incoherent fabrication, of dead ghosts and unborn shadows, of traditions, cants, indolences, cowardices,—a falsity of falsities, which at last ceases to stick together. Wilfully and against their will, these high units of mankind were cheats, then; and the low millions who believed in them were dupes,—a kind of inverse cheats, too, or they would not have believed in them so long. – Charles Dickens, Bleak House.

Ten years after the Public Trustee took down a worker, had him kidnapped, put him in a lock-up 100 kms from his friends and allowed him to die in penury, even the Minister can’t hide that … what will she do? Call another inquiry so that the Public Trustee’s mates in the legal profession can write ‘sage and meticulous advice’ at $1,000 a word?

Peter Carne did nothing but cover up the fraud at AHIMSA house; the Supreme court judge and the QC with his ‘sage advice’ stopped tracking down the fraudsters; Premier Anna Bligh read out the Friends-of-AHIMSA petition in the parliament and became an apologist for the same banks that stole Ross’s money; her PA was affronted that we would call out the local business man who stole $168,032 from Ross (and more); the local member, Jackie Trad, sat on her hands; Anastacia ignored everything. Jarrod Pieter Bleijie told us to live with it and Campbell-Newman said that he would help but did nothing. The Police Commissioner did nothing, and the Crime & Corruption Commission said fraud and maladministration was outside its scope.

Where to now? The much sought after West End primary school sits on the site where AHIMSA house once stood. The perpetrators need to be held accountable, recompense paid to those exploited, and clean up the mess inside the Queensland Public Trustee and the Public Guardian. Not by more re-shuffling the deck, employing more casual staff, no none of that. Begin by demoting the Director’s General, the Guardian, the Public Trustee and opening up the place to those who don’t have self interest as their motivator but are the people whose loved ones have been taken advantage of. This can’t happen while the Public Trustee’s office is a self-funded statutory body operating on its own ‘mandate for the structure of its operations’ as claimed in the article by Stephanie Zilllman below.

In West End Brisbane, unconscionable transactions by the local branch of Westpac have been known for some time. Six hundred Westenders petitioned their local Labor member, Anna Bligh, asking that the Public Trustee bring the bank to account for its “unconscionable behaviour in its dealings with an elderly man who had lost his wife, suffered a life threatening heart attack and who was not apprised of the risks of the loan transaction that enabled the bank to sell AHIMSA house.

The Supreme Court of Queensland was asked this simple question in the matter of Carl Ross Taylor:

Whether the Public Trustee should spend any money (a small portion of the millions of dollars it has in cash reserves) to institute proceedings (if any) against (those accused of fraud) Brian Lennard Laver, Will Marcus and Challenger Bank?

In response Mr Justice Martin of the Supreme Court said this:

Mr Fraser QC has provided a meticulously careful and sage memorandum of advice to the Court in which he outlines the salient information regarding each party involved and his opinion as to the steps the Public Trustee should take.

Sage Advice

To pursue these matters would be a burden on a man of impaired capacity such as Mr Taylor. It would expose him to the travails of
litigation with no possibility of any actual advantage to him apart from the prospect of a victory which would be Pyrrhic. Such actions would not be in the best interests of Mr Taylor.

I disagree, your honour.

The public trustee needs to be returned to the Queensland Public Service. Public sector accountability is required. Its free will service needs to be just that, not a conduit for setting up the Public Trustee as the executor of the estates of ordinary people. Certainly not a means whereby the public trustee can charge exorbitant fees.

The ‘free will service’ was originally set up to encourage people to make a will and get their affairs in order before death. The ultimate means of ensuing that our wishes are followed is to gift to our relatives and friends what we wish prior to our departure. We would then make the Public Trustee redundant.

Ian Curr,
Editor, Workers BushTelegraph.


We post yet more tales of woe, this time from the ABC’s Stephanie Zillman. The number of people being exploited has become so great can the silence from the Minister and her government continue much longer?

Queensland’s Public Trustee accused of profiting off people who lack capacity to manage own affairs

Special needs young people in wheelchairs.
People on guardianship orders are protected under legislation from publicly being identified as such.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

Queensland’s Public Trustee is charging asset-rich people in its care such high fees and charges, that they are drained of their resources in just a few years, the boss of a leading aged care support agency says.

Key points:

  • Queensland Public Trustee has been accused of fee-gouging vulnerable people
  • Advocates have suggested asset-rich clients could be left destitute
  • Public Trustee says it has a mandate for the structure of its operations

It provides a range of services that include financial administration services to people who cannot manage their own money, managing deceased estates, and providing a free will-making service to Queensland residents.

Geoff Rowe, chief executive of Aged and Disability Advocates (ADA) Australia, said his service regularly received calls from people under financial administration who have become destitute.

“Certainly we see people who have gone in asset-rich and within a couple of years, those assets seem to have been dwindled away on fees and charges, and that’s really concerning,” Mr Rowe said.

“We see people who have been surviving on a pension, and managing to save, and have been doing that over a number of years.

“They’ve then gone under the control of the Public Trustee, and due to the fees and charges, they’ve ended up with no resources, with no savings.”

Mr Rowe said given that outcome, in some cases people would have done a better job by themselves rather than with the support of the Public Trustee.

The reason people ended up under financial administration in the first place was they were judged by the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) to lack the capacity to manage their own affairs.

Wheelchair with unidentified adolescent
Over time, the Public Trustee has accumulated almost $178 million in cash reserves.(ABC)

The Public Trustee of Queensland’s annual report for 2019-20 goes some way towards explaining how the organisation is structured.

It is a self-funded organisation that does not receive government funding, instead generating some 71 per cent of its revenue through fees.

Over time, it has accumulated almost $178 million in cash reserves.

The Public Trustee directed the ABC to its fees and charges section on its website, where one of its own example scenarios demonstrates it would take more than a quarter of an elderly man’s pension in fees and charges.

Its scenario is a man named Peter living in a property he owns, with $6,000 in savings.

Based on an average annual aged-care pension of $24,551, the Public Trustee states it would charge Peter $6,817 in annual fees and charges.

An elderly man in a wheelchair with his hand on his head, with a carer.
The Public Trustee is a self-funded organisation, generating some 71 per cent of its revenue through fees.(Pixabay.Com: Unclelkt)

The Public Trustee spent $38 million on what it calls “community service obligations” last year, including providing free wills to thousands of people, but estate lawyer Christine Smyth said the Public Trustee was charging high fees to the people who needed its service the most.

Ms Smyth, who specialises in elder law, has acted in numerous matters where the administration of the Public Trustee was being challenged.

She said one of the most disturbing problems she saw was people being charged the legal fees of the Public Trustee when people challenged or queried its actions or appointment.

People on guardianship orders are protected under legislation from being publicly identified as under guardianship.

Ms Smyth said while the legislation was designed to protect vulnerable people, it had also been a barrier to address issues in the system by effectively gagging people from speaking out.

‘I was taken advantage of’

Aged care resident Brian* (not his real name), is one person who successfully had guardianship and financial administration orders revoked in 2017, after being charged thousands of dollars in fees.

He told the ABC after he returned home from a lengthy hospital stay, his care provider applied to QCAT to place him under financial administration.

Brian had been receiving disability support for a range of complex health issues, including a serious spinal condition that confined him to a wheelchair.

The first and final hearing was scheduled while he was still recovering, and his application to adjourn the hearing pending additional medical evidence was dismissed.

Brian spent six months under financial administration, during which time he was charged $8,648 in fees and outlays, including $2,500 in legal fees.

“There’s no changing the system — there was no system,” Brian said.

“There was just a process whereby a matter came before the tribunal and it was just presented as a factual matter and the decision was made — there was no discussion of the merit of the case.”

A man sits in a garden outside a city building, his face blurred to protect his identity.
Aged care resident Brian* (not his real name), successfully had a guardianship order revoked.(ABC News: Stephanie Zillman)

Brian initiated a reopening of his case six months into a 12-month appointment of the public trustee and public guardian, ultimately leading QCAT to revoke the orders and accept his medical evidence.

Brian’s advocate — ADA Australia — wrote to the Public Trustee querying the fees and requested a refund or reduction.

In a written statement provided to the ABC about Brian’s case, his advocate said after it sought clarification of the fees, the Public Trustee clarified the legal fees were incurred because of QCAT’s direction to prepare submissions in response to Brian’s application to reopen the matter, and these submissions were prepared “on behalf of the Public Trustee”.

The Public Trustee justified the fees on the basis they were reasonable for the work undertaken and “did not consider that a full or partial refund of fees is warranted in this instance”.

Brian said he had initially thought the Public Trustee would “rescue” him from the bureaucracy he encountered at QCAT.

“[I thought] they would take away the bureaucracy of what was being done, and they would sort it all out,” Brian said.

“But I wasn’t informed, there was no information about how the system worked — I was taken advantage of.”

Public Trustee has ‘departed from its purpose’

Ms Smyth said she believed the practices of the Public Trustee had departed significantly from its original purpose.

“[It] was set up last century as a benevolent organisation to undertake benevolent acts of generosity to our citizens, by providing free wills to soldiers who were about to go to war — and it has developed and morphed into something entirely different,” Ms Smyth said.

“You’ve got an organisation that is entirely self-funded, questions are asked about [whether] it is proper and appropriate for a government organisation to profit off the poor circumstances of … Queenslanders?”

Christine Smyth sits in a office desk with book in front of her and library shelves of books behind him.
Ms Smyth has acted in numerous matters where the administration of the Public Trustee was being challenged.(ABC News: Steve Keen)

That is a view shared by Mr Rowe.

“The focus of the Public Trustee I think over the years has been on generating enough income to run the machine — and the machine has almost become more important than the individuals they’re there to support,” Mr Rowe said.

He said cases like Brian’s were ultimately unusual, because his guardianship order and the appointment of the Public Trustee had been revoked.

“The system does little to support people to become independent,” Mr Rowe said.

“We see examples where a young person with an intellectual disability comes into the public trust system at age 18.

“Over time they can be taught the skills to become financially independent, and we don’t see that happen.”

Mr Rowe said while he believed the system encouraged dependency, there were green shoots.

“We’ve had some very frank and honest conversations with the Acting Public Trustee to say the system is broken … that it needs reform, and I believe that he sees that,” Mr Rowe said.

Headshot of Geoff Rowe.
Mr Rowe said his service regularly gets calls from people under financial administration who have become destitute.(ABC News: Dean Caton)

Public Trustee has ‘clear mandate’

Both the Acting Public Trustee Samay Zhouand and Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman declined to be interviewed, and their offices provided almost identical statements. Want more local news? We offer tailored front pages for local audiences in each state and territory. Find out how to opt in for more Queensland news.

A spokesperson for the Public Trustee said the legislation that governed its powers had been tested by entities such as the courts, parliament, oversight agencies and the public.

“As such, the Public Trustee remains of the view that it has a clear mandate for its role and functions,” the spokesperson said.

“We have also commenced an independent, comprehensive review of our fees and charges to ensure that they are fair, equitable and transparent.”

The spokesperson also said it supported its customers to seek financial independence and ran a ‘financial independence pathways’ program to support customers to understand how to manage their own money and apply for capacity through QCAT.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Attorney-General said Ms Fentiman was currently considering a report on the Public Trustee by the Public Advocate for Queensland.

A woman sits in a board room.
Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman declined to be interviewed but her office sent a statement.(ABC News: Rachel Riga)

Stephanie Zillman