In the last few years, public awareness and political appetite for action has increased, thanks in no small part to organisations such as Age UK and Action on Elder Abuse.
Financial abuse of the vulnerable, particularly the elderly, is an increasing problem in our society. Solicitors and insurers are reporting dramatic increases in the number of cases involving actual or suspected abuse. In an ageing population already consisting of something like 10.8 million people over 65 (the vast majority of whom own their own houses) there will be no shortage of opportunity for those seeking to forge and exploit relationships of trust for financial gain.
Cases involving predatory strangers or opportunist friends or carers often dominate the headlines, but remain relatively rare. Exploitation by members of the victim’s family (particularly sons or daughters) is far more common, but is often more difficult to discover and deal with.
The abuse can take many forms. Being tricked or bullied into allowing the abuser unrestricted access to a bank account, or even into transferring ownership of the victim’s house, is a common theme. However, the main route is through abuse of the powers given under a Power of Attorney or Deputyship order. According to the Office of the Public Guardian ("OPG"), well over 900,000 Lasting Powers of Attorney have been registered since their introduction in 2007, with over 200,000 registered in the last year alone. The OPG predicts it will register something like 380,000 this year, with the numbers to rise steadily year on year for at least the next 10 years.
It has always been the case that the OPG will investigate and take action on reports of suspicious activity concerning Attorneys or Deputies. Local Authorities are responsible for taking action as an adult safeguarding measure where the abuse is by someone other than an Attorney or Deputy. In appropriate cases the police will also be involved, yet this combined system does not appear to have been much of a deterrent.
Encouragingly, there are signs of late that abusers are not going to be having it all their own way in future. In the last few years, public awareness and political appetite for action has increased, thanks in no small part to organisations such as Age UK and Action on Elder Abuse ("AEA"). We now have the Care Act 2014 which puts Local Authorities’ responsibilities on a clearer statutory footing.
We also have a more transparent Court of Protection. Since January, the general rule is now that judgments in cases involving the conduct of an Attorney ought to be published, and in appropriate cases, the Attorney can be "named and shamed", which should act as a further deterrent. Indeed, we are starting to see this happening in the press, and very recently the Daily Mirror obtained permission to name a gardener who was removed as the Attorney for an 89 year old Orpington widow because of issues with how he was managing her affairs.
We each of us have a responsibility to look out for vulnerable members of society. The AEA provide helpful guidance on prevention, the signs to look out for, and how to approach what can be a delicate area. If you suspect financial abuse is happening to someone you know, do not put it off – contact the AEA or a specialist solicitor for advice.