The provincial government says it's conducting a comprehensive review looking for better ways to safeguard millions of dollars belonging to some of P.E.I.'s most vulnerable residents in the office of the public trustee.

The office manages $9 million in assets that belong to about 300 Islanders who aren't able to make their own financial decisions.

This includes people declared medically unfit who have no one else to manage their affairs, and in some cases minors or people with disabilities awarded funds through court settlements and estates.

Back in March the auditor general delivered a report concluding the office wasn't doing an adequate job tracking and protecting those assets.

Members of the province's public accounts committee were briefed Wednesday on government's plan to improve oversight of the office of the public trustee, and ensure client files are accurate and up-to-date.

'I don't think the deputy minister should be just coming in and saying "This person can't appear because of a judicial appointment" if that's not really the case.' —Sidney MacEwen

The office is currently two years behind providing audited financial statements to the auditor general.

"Government is committed to supporting vulnerable Islanders," the province's director of family law and court services Clare Henderson told the committee, outlining staffing increases with the public trustee's office.

Safeguards inadequate, AG found

Henderson said the office has increased from two to three full-time positions and government will add another 0.6 positions for a finance officer.

She also said the office is also reviewing policies from across the country as it updates its own set of policies for administering client files, managing investments and contacting known heirs after a client dies.

In her 2017 report, Auditor General Jane MacAdam found the public trustee's office had no documented policy for seeking out the heirs of a deceased client and that "action taken to contact family varies."

Overall, MacAdam found "processes to administer and safeguard client assets are inadequate," citing a lack of internal controls over expenditures made on a client's behalf.

Those assets, in some cases held on behalf of clients declared medically unfit or with no one else able to manage their financial affairs, are valued at more than $9 million.

Public trustee not allowed to appear

While the committee had called back in August for Public Trustee Mark Gallant to appear as a witness, the Department of Justice told the committee just days before Wednesday's meeting that he would not be allowed to do so — with Henderson sent in his place.

On Oct. 31, Gallant was appointed as acting prothonotary, a clerk of the P.E.I. Supreme Court.

Clare Henderson

'Government is committed to supporting vulnerable Islanders,' says Clare Henderson, director of family law and court services with the P.E.I. Department of Justice. (Kerry Campbell/CBC News)

In a letter from the Department of Justice dated Nov. 5, the committee was told that, as he is now "a member of the judicial branch of government … Mr. Gallant cannot appear before the legislative or executive branch."

To allow Gallant to appear before the committee, the letter continued, "would jeopardize the principle of judicial independence and call the administration of justice into question."

Disappointed, but understands

Committee clerk Ryan Reddin told the committee his office had researched the issue.

"From our perspective we don't know of any limitation to prevent an officer of the court from appearing," he said.

"It would also be noted that in this case the committee was seeking the appearance of the public trustee to talk about the public trustee role, not to talk about the role of the prothonotary."

The committee said it would seek further clarification from government on the prohibition it cited preventing Gallant from appearing.

When contacted by CBC News, Gallant said via email he "was disappointed but [understood] the reasoning" behind the department's decision not to allow him to appear as a witness.

"I don't think the deputy minister should be just coming in and saying 'This person can't appear because of a judicial appointment' if that's not really the case, if they are really very much allowed to appear before our committee," said PC MLA Sidney MacEwen.