Elder abuse, safeguarding and the supervision – is the OPG doing its job?

I did pause before compiling this blog.  I wondered if I was straying into dangerous waters and if suddenly my referrals as an OPG panel Deputy would inexplicably dry up upon publication of this slightly controversial article! But the point of this blog and the SFE membership is, in my view, to raise issues so we can continue to change and improve current practice, and fortune favours the brave… (or so I’m told).

I am not sure we are doing enough to protect the elderly and vulnerable members of our society.  I am not convinced that the public body charged with looking into reports of abuse against registered attorneys or deputies takes action quick enough or has the manpower to investigate  concerns, and if they are not doing it, then who is?  It is my worry that hundreds, if not thousands of instances of abuse go unpunished.

We know from the OPG Safeguarding Policy of 2014 that the OPG has a statutory role on behalf of the Public Guardian to safeguard adults and that the OPG will work in partnership with other agencies when necessary.  The OPG business plan 2015-2016 confirms that their vision is to ensure the OPG safeguards its users and investigates concerns quickly and professionally.  In 2013/2014 the OPG received 4028 referrals to safeguarding, of which 690 were accepted for investigation.  In 2014/2015 the numbers had swelled to 4882, of which 779 were investigated, the majority of which comprised financial abuse.  Of these 779, 48% resulted in some further action whereas 52%, i.e. 405 were not progressed any further.

So we can assume that’s good news, right? Of nearly 5,000 complaints to the OPG of suspected abuse, only 374 were valid…..How do we know that’s right? Well, we know because the OPG tell us it is correct.  The OPG tell us that of those 5,000 concerns, over 4,500 of the people got it wrong, had been worrying unnecessarily, or were simply mistaken. 

I may be cynical but to my mind, those figures don’t stack up.  My firm hosted a conference on Action on Elder Abuse last year and the statistics were staggering; 96,000 reported cases of Financial Abuse in 2010; £25 million in cash and property stolen from vulnerable elderly people in 2013, with two thirds of all perpetrators being either family members or partners.  That information, coupled with some recent experiences I have been told about do give me cause for concern.

Here’s an example.  A lady phoned the firm a few weeks ago.  Her father had re-married in his 70s and the new wife (and Attorney) had promptly transferred the jointly owned property into her sole name, ditto the savings and investments and care home fees weren’t getting paid.  The daughter was concerned - what could she do? I signposted her to the OPG, as the Attorney was acting under a registered power.  Imagine my surprise when I got a call back later that day saying the OPG weren’t interested and that if she was minded to progress things she would need to arrange a capacity report.  How could she do that without consent of dad?  She was merely a concerned daughter.  I rang OPG myself and they apologised for the incorrect advice given.

The same thing happened last week - this time a gentleman wondering about actions of his brother who was Attorney for dad; the care home had said fees weren’t being paid and dad didn’t have toiletries - he phoned OPG who weren’t interested so he was wondering what to do next.

This led me to thinking, what would happen if these people hadn’t spoken to me? What if they had just gone straight to OPG and been fobbed off by this incorrect advice, without being aware of the safeguarding duty? Does this mean that the 4,500 who telephoned the OPG with legitimate concerns didn’t get it wrong?

It could be these were isolated incidents, but I am concerned that issues of real financial and Elder abuse are falling through the gaps in a system specifically set up to protect vulnerable people, and that if we don’t flag up these problems, who will? I suppose it harks back to, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or who guards the guards.  I think we all should do, because it matters, and because we belong to an organisation which places the well being of the elderly at its heart.  We know that financial abuse of the elderly is on the increase; we know much of this is done by Attorneys, or family members in a position of trust and we are all facing an ageing population, therefore this problem is only going to increase.  We should care that people are given the right information and if they are not, we should take action, because sometimes people need someone to fight their corner; sometimes the best person to do that is us.

Lin Whitehead is OPG (Office of the Public Guardian) panel Deputy for Norfolk and Suffolk and specialises in advising elderly clients and acting in cases where there is suspected financial abuse, duress or complex family dynamics.

Lin, accredited SFE (Solicitors for the Elderly) member, also recently passed the Elderly Older Client Care in Practice Award. In order to be a fully accredited SFE member, lawyers must have a minimum of three years' experience advising in areas of older client law and have completed the Older Client Care in Practice Award - a qualification which demonstrates the specialist client care skills that enable lawyers to advise and support older and vulnerable clients. Members are also required to continuously update their knowledge with training and produce an annual statement of competence, which ensures they maintain their expertise.

If you have concerns about your legal affairs in later life, please call 01603 693500 and speak to Lin or email lin@clapham-collinge.co.uk

With one of the largest private client departments in Norfolk, Clapham & Collinge have a reputation for providing the local community with an extensive range of private client services. For more information, visit www.clapham-collinge.co.uk or contact Clapham on Collinge by calling 01603 693500 or email info@clapham-collinge.co.uk