Cowan v Scargill and Others: ChD 13 Apr 1984

Trustee’s duties in relation to investments

Within the National Coal Board Pension scheme, the trustees appointed by the NCB were concerned at the activities of the trustees of the miners, and sought directions from the court. The defendants refused to allow any funds to be invested abroad.
Held: The same principles applied to pension funds as applied to other trusts. The NUM trustees were attempting to impose the prohibitions in order to carry out union policy; and mere assertions that their sole consideration was the benefit of the beneficiaries do not alter that conclusion, and the defendant had misrepresented the effect of the legal advice upon which he purported to act.
As this was a trust to provide financial benefits, the power of investment must be exercised to yield the best return for the beneficiaries. However the judge qualified this moderately by saying that while the trustees’ paramount concern must be the beneficiaries’ financial benefit, there may be non-financial benefits that the beneficiaries may wish to obtain even if they might as a result receive lesser financial benefits.
Sir Robert Megarry VC said: ‘The starting point is the duty of trustees to exercise their powers in the best interests of the present and future beneficiaries of the trust, holding the scales impartially between different classes of beneficiaries. This duty of the trustees towards their beneficiaries is paramount. They must, of course, obey the law; but subject to that, they must put the interests of their beneficiaries first. When the purpose of the trust is to provide financial benefits for the beneficiaries, as is usually the case, the best interests of the beneficiaries are normally their best financial interests. In the case of a power of investment, as in the present case, the power must be exercised so as to yield the best return for the beneficiaries, judged in relation to the risks of the investments in question; and the prospects of the yield of income and capital appreciation both have to be considered in judging the return from the investment.’
If trustees for social or ethical reasons fail to make an investment which would produce a better result, the would be subject to criticism. ‘In considering what investments to make trustees must put on one side their own personal interests and views. Trustees may have strongly held social or political views. They may be firmly opposed to any investment in South Africa or other countries, or they may object to any form of investment in companies concerned with alcohol, tobacco, armaments or many other things. In the conduct of their own affairs, of course, they are free to abstain from making any such investments. Yet under a trust, if investments of this type would be more beneficial to the beneficiaries than other investments, the trustees must not refrain from making the investments by reason of the views that they hold.’
however: ‘If trustees make a decision upon wholly wrong grounds, and yet it subsequently appears, from matters which they did not express or refer to, that there are in fact good and sufficient reasons for supporting their decision, then I do not think that they would incur any liability for having decided the matter upon erroneous grounds; for the decision itself was right.’


Sir Robert Megarry VC


[1985] Ch 270, (1984) 128 SJ 550, [1984] IRLR 260, [1984] 3 WLR 501, [1984] 2 All ER 750


Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 37


England and Wales


CitedButtle v Saunders ChD 1950
Trustees for sale had struck a bargain for the sale of trust property but had not bound themselves by a legally enforceable contract.
Held: They had a duty to consider and explore a better offer that they received, and not to carry through the . .
CitedIn re Wyvern Developments Ltd ChD 1974
An official receiver ‘must do his best by his creditors and contributories. He is in a fiduciary capacity and cannot make moral gestures, nor can the court authorise him to do so.’ . .
CitedBalls v Strutt 1841
‘It is a principle in this court, that a trustee shall not be permitted to use the powers which the trust may confer upon him at law, except for the legitimate purposes of his trust;…’ . .
CitedDuke of Portland v Topham CA 1864
Commonlii The donee of a power of appointing portions among his younger children appointed a double share to a younger child without previous communication with him. But it appeared from the instructions for the . .
CitedIn re Whiteley 1886
Lindley LJ considered the duties of a trustee in exercising his powers of investment and said: ‘The principle applicable to cases of this description was stated . . to be that a trustee ought to conduct the business of the trust in the same manner . .
CitedHarrison-Broadley v Smith CA 1964
The court has an inherent power to make declarations even though they have not been claimed in the proceedings. In order to give effect to a partnership, the partner who owns the premises on which the partnership business is carried on is taken to . .
CitedEvans v London Co-operative Society Ltd 6-Jul-1976
Rule 7 of the trust instrument of a pension fund provided for the pensions committee to make loans on certain terms to the Co-operative Society in question, and the pension fund had been receiving from the society less than the market rate of . .

Cited by:

CitedNestle v National Westminster Bank CA 6-May-1992
The claimant said that the defendant bank as trustee of her late father’s estate had been negligent in its investment of trust assets.
Held: The claimant had failed to establish either a breach of trust or any loss flowing from it, though . .
CitedLehtimaki and Others v Cooper SC 29-Jul-2020
Charitable Company- Directors’ Status and Duties
A married couple set up a charitable foundation to assist children in developing countries. When the marriage failed an attempt was made to establish a second foundation with funds from the first, as part of W leaving the Trust. Court approval was . .
CitedButler-Sloss and Others v The Charity Commission for England and Wales and Another ChD 29-Apr-2022
Principles allowing Ethical Investment by Trustees
Should charities, whose principal purposes are environmental protection and improvement and the relief of poverty, be able to adopt an investment policy that excludes many potential investments because the trustees consider that they conflict with . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Trusts, Financial Services

Leading Case

Updated: 04 May 2022; Ref: scu.222822