The Increasing Exploitation Of Vulnerable People By Attorneys and Deputies
The threat to the elderly from those who have been trusted to look after them is growing.
As the older population expands, along with mental incapacity, evidence shows that financial abuse of this vulnerable group is also on the increase. Charity Age UK says that 130,000 over-65s in the UK have suffered financial abuse, with a Northern Ireland study reporting a figure of 21% of respondents.
While many older people assume the main threat comes from rogue traders and financial scammers, the reality is that the risk is often closer to home. Age UK believes that 70% of financial abuse is carried out by family members.
The system of appointing an attorney by filing a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) has been simplified in an attempt to help families manage the care and finances of older relatives, but as a result the scope for abuse is wide. An LPA form can simply be downloaded online and completed without the donor receiving any independent legal advice.
LPAs can be set up and validated months or years later without any notice to other relatives. No reporting or filing of accounts is required and often those who have handed over power have little idea of the ongoing state of their financial affairs.
As well as age and mental incapacity, risks to the vulnerable are higher where there is poor health, low support levels, a need for help with day-to-day living or social isolation. Being taken advantage of can have a huge emotional impact on victims, who often don’t report abuse because they are unwilling or scared to make a complaint, or are simply unaware of the misconduct.
Those who suspect wrongdoing are wary of reporting it for fear of being wrong. They are reluctant to ask questions which may seem prying or of making incorrect accusations.
As well as being under-reported, financial abuse is hard to detect. What starts out as legitimate expenditure may over time become exploitative. Proving what is acceptable, needed and gifted as opposed to what is theft is difficult.
Where a patient has lost mental capacity without appointing an attorney themselves and the Court of Protection (COP) is called on to appoint a deputy, scrutiny is higher and there is less scope for abuse. Annual expenditure reports must be made and the COP makes inspection visits to the deputy.
There is also a requirement that an insurance-type bond be purchased, giving cover in the event of any financial loss or mismanagement, either intentional or unintentional.
It has been suggested that these safeguards should be implemented in the case of attorneys appointed under LPAs as well as a requirement that one or more family members be notified when an LPA is put into effect.
Further safeguarding ideas include assessment of a donor’s capacity by a doctor or solicitor and increasing the awareness of those who come into contact with vulnerable adults, including financial institutions, social services, police, lawyers and care workers so that they are more open to asking questions and understanding of the risk of abuse.
The older generation is seen by many as being wealthy, with valuable property and no dependants, and family members sometimes develop a feeling of entitlement towards older relatives’ assets. When scrutiny of attorney activity is negligible, the temptation can be overwhelming, and combined with a reluctance to report abuse, an increase in exploitation seems certain unless changes are made.
Is enough being done to ensure the safety of the UK’s most vulnerable people?