The institution of the Trust is one of the most important ideas in English law. Its very definition is heavily contested, but most would agree that a trust arises where someone (a trustee) nominally owns property, and may wield many of the powers of ownership, but is generally unable to take advantage of that ownership. Instead the trustee-owner holds the property to the benefit of some other person (known as a beneficiary), a class of persons, or an object such as a charitable purpose bringing benefit to the public. Trusts can arise in two main ways – by intention; or because the law has other reasons to make an owner into a trustee. The purpose of the intentional trust is to transfer wealth in a more complex way than would be easy or possible to achieve by straight-out conveyance, such as to have the property distributed on particular terms and conditions, or to disperse ownership to win tax advantages, or to allow ongoing management of the asset. There are myriad situations in which the law has other reasons to make an owner of property into a trustee; one very important one is where a couple’s home is nominally owned by only one partner, but the other partner deserves a share in it. The course looks at the scenarios in which the different kinds of trusts arise, and at how they behave.
In one respect, the course also looks outside trusts. A trustee is a fiduciary, being someone having a duty to act for another’s benefit through the control of property. But there are other examples of fiduciaries too, such as solicitors, who must act for their clients’ benefit; or agents who can contract on behalf of their principals. The course looks at the law’s control of fiduciaries in general, whether they are trustees or persons otherwise charged with promoting the interests of others.
Trusts is one of the compulsory standard subjects within the Final Honours School syllabus. It also covers material in the “foundations of legal knowledge” and so must be taken by those seeking a professional qualification in England and Wales.