This article is part one in a series. For the full series, go here.

Some readers may find aspects of this article distressing.

Across Australia, tens of thousands of people — most elderly, some living with disabilities — have aspects of their lives controlled by the state.

Public guardians are appointed when people are deemed unable to make decisions for themselves, and can decide where these people live, who can visit them and what medical care they receive. In some states, guardianship orders define what specific decisions a public guardian can make, while in other states orders are broader. These orders are time-limited and are periodically reviewed. Nearly 14,000 Australians are currently under a guardianship order.

Then there are public trustees. They decide where these people’s money should be invested and what personal items should be sold — and charge astronomical fees for doing so. State public trustees manage nearly $15 billion in assets and consistently make a profit for their services, representing more than 47,000 Australians.

The story is complex. Guardianship orders are there to protect the vulnerable. Representatives of the state — supposedly as a last resort — act as an administrator for someone’s finances and care in order to protect them from physical and financial abuse and neglect if there is no one else to do so.

But victims of the system have accused state governments of profiteering, using clients as cash cows. They say they and their loved ones have been forced into state custody and put into aged care, their wishes disregarded, their contact with family cut and their homes sold.

In many cases, people are worse off under state management, with poor returns on their investment and little help accessing payments they’re entitled to. 

Crikey has interviewed a dozen families affected by guardianship orders across the country and corresponded with several others. As well we have spoken to 13 academics, five lawyers, three advocates, one private investigator, have contacted tribunal and state representatives, and spoken to several anonymous sources working within hospitals and state trustee and guardianship offices. 

Almost all the families’ stories are the same: they or their family member goes to hospital for what the family says is a minor injury. Then a hospital representative or social worker applies for a referral for a guardianship order implemented by state tribunals.

The hearings increasingly happen at a patient’s bedside, and many people Crikey spoke to were unaware of their ramifications.

Hospitals have an incentive to apply for guardianship orders: the public guardian can place people in residential aged care, reducing state hospital costs. Some of those Crikey spoke to didn’t ever go home after being admitted.

The tribunal can also decide to appoint the public trustee to manage a person’s finances. In some cases, this means denying them access to funds to pay for a lawyer to fight the guardianship order. 

The public trustee charges high fees, often thousands each year for minimal services. Some invoices sighted by Crikey lack details of what people are being charged for, and internal documents show the offices have “strategic plans” and objectives to deliver a surplus “​​required to enable sustainable reinvestment that supports current and future business objectives”. 

There is little regulation over the fees which often supersede what a solicitor could legally charge. In some states, profits from investments do not go to the client. 

Revoking a guardianship order is rare and difficult, and many families spend thousands on legal fees trying to get their loved ones out of state hands. 

One of the cases Crikey has investigated is so concerning that representatives of the Disability Council International in Geneva became involved, calling for the Queensland government to launch criminal investigations.  

In this series, Crikey investigates, step by step, exactly how the state can seize control of a person — and how people’s bank accounts are drained in the process. 

To read more pieces in this series, go here.

For legal reasons, please don’t identify yourself or others under guardianship or financial administration in the comments.