The Public Trustee Office was set up in January 1908 under the Public Trustee Act 1906 in order to provide the public with the services of a perpetual trustee guaranteed by the state to administer trust funds with integrity, fairness and impartiality at cost price. The Public Trustee is a corporation sole with perpetual succession and is empowered to act solely or jointly as executor or administrator of the estates of deceased persons of as trustee under a will or settlement and in other capacities of a like nature.
The Public Trustee may act only under English and Welsh trusts and is forbidden to act under certain types of trust, in particular those involving the management of businesses for indefinite periods, purely religious or charitable uses, and cases of debt, insolvency or loan security. The Public Trustee's appointment is effected in the same way as a private trust or by an order of court.
The Public Trustee and senior staff are appointed by the Lord Chancellor, with the approval of the Treasury, and act in accordance with regulations drawn up by the lord chancellor. Fees for services, designed to cover administrative costs, are fixed by the Treasury with the sanction of the lord chancellor, to whom the public trustee is responsible. Though the office has undergone some reorganisation since 1908 its main divisions have not altered greatly. From 1914 to 1956 a branch office under a Deputy Public Trustee was maintained at Manchester. Since 1914 The Public Trustee has received advice on investments from a committee of businessmen established for that purpose, The Investment Advisory Committee.
The Secretariat (later Establishment Division) is responsible for the general organisation of the office, staffing, vote accounting, statistical work, collection of fees and audit of securities and valuables in the temporary custody of the public trustee.
The Administrative Division, which is responsible for the administration of trusts, has absorbed a number of smaller branches: the Acceptance Branch, which dealt with the acceptance of new business; the Legality of Investment Branch, which had to authorise all investments and sales; and the Signing Branch, which was responsible for the signing of cheques and forms of authority, authentication work, and audit of the transactions of the Securities Division.
The Property Adviser's Division was responsible for advice on the management and sale of real estate and other property. It is now a section of the Administrative Division. The Securities Division was responsible for the maintenance of records of securities and investments in connection with individual trusts, collection of dividends, and purchases and sales of investments agreed upon by the trust officers of the Administrative Division and the investment managers of the Investment Division. It is now part of the latter division.
The Accountants' Division is charged with keeping trust books and accounts, countersigning authorities for payment of money and orders for transfer of securities and other assets of trust, and the audit of trust administration.
The Investment Division deals with the selection and management of investments in connection with the administration of trusts.
During both world wars the Public Trustee has been appointed custodian of enemy property by the Board of Trade. By the Trading with the Enemy Act 1914 he was appointed custodian of enemy property for England and Wales, involving the registration of enemy property, the collection of income or capital sums deriving from such property, and the administration and disposition of property of enemies or enemy subjects vested in him by orders of the High Court or the Board of Trade, respectively.
In addition, by proclamations of 7 September 1916 and 27 November 1917 the Public Trustee was required to register claims by British subjects against enemies in respect of debts or property owing in enemy or enemy occupied territory.
To carry out these functions a Trading with the Enemy Department was set up. The organisation of this sub-department mirrored that of the main office on a smaller scale. After the war the department worked in association with the Enemy Debts Clearing Office of the Board of Trade in connection with the release of enemy property in England and Wales and of British property in enemy territories. In 1920 its duties as custodian of Austrian and Bulgarian property were transferred to the Clearing Office and on 1 January 1925 the Trading with the Enemy Department was absorbed within the Clearing Office.
In September 1939 the Public Trustee was again appointed custodian of enemy property for England and Wales by the Board of Trade. In February 1948 residual functions in this field reverted to the Board.
In 1972, following the recommendation of the Committee of Inquiry 1971 to 1972 into the future of the Public Trustee Office (Cmnd 4913), it was announced that the work of the office was to be run down and, to make provision for such work as remained, a merger was to take place with the Official Solicitor's Department of the Supreme Court of Judicature. In 1974, following the change of government, it was announced that it was no longer proposed to proceed with this recommendation.
In 1985 The Investment Advisory Committee merged with a similar committee advising the Court of Protection.