The cases that don’t “bang, bleed or shout”: the scandal of financial abuse
Financial abuse doesn’t get the same media attention as other forms of abuse. But the reality is that it has horrible and very real consequences for victims and more must be done for them.
Fraud cases are dealt with less seriousness by the police than other cases; an HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report published on 2 April 2019 found that one of the 11 forces inspected shelved 96% of cases it received from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. An officer told interviewers that fraud was not considered a priority because “it does not bang, bleed or shout”.
Fraud is a criminal offence. ‘Financial abuse’ is a wider term which covers all sorts of situations: a carer, grooming an elderly patient to give them gifts of money; an adult child persuading his parents to transfer their home into his name; a niece persuading her aunt to make a will in her favour. In many of these situations it is possible to take legal action in the civil courts to recover the money or property that has been wrongly taken.
Financial abuse can be:
- Misappropriation of money or property.
- Exerting undue influence to give away assets or gifts.
- Pressure to make or change a will or power of attorney.
Why are we seeing more financial abuse? The baby boomer generation benefited from increasing property prices and is a relatively wealthy section of the population. We are living longer – but science hasn’t yet managed to reduce the cognitive impairment associated with the ageing process. In addition, divorce, separation and work opportunities often leaves older people isolated within their communities.
Increasing numbers of people are making a power of attorney (POA) in relation to their property and finances. This enables their attorney to manage their financial affairs in the event that they lose mental capacity. In England & Wales, 2.5 million powers of attorney have been registered; 648,000 in 2017 alone.
Attorneys are supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) which investigates allegations of wrongdoing. In 2016/17 5,327 referrals were made and the OPG investigated 1,266 cases – an increase of 45% on the previous year.
The Times reported on 30 March 2019 that five prosecutions a week are currently being brought against people for allegedly abusing powers of attorney. Failing to pay care home fees is a frequent ‘red flag’ of abuse. More than 2,000 cases are now being investigated a year by the OPG for allegations of financial and physical abuse. Alan Eccles, the Public Guardian, said that about half of those cases trigger some action and that over the past year about 250 resulted in court prosecutions, most of which were successful.
It’s clear that cases of financial abuse are on the rise and it’s equally clear that as a society we are dismally failing to adequately protect our most vulnerable citizens. More work must be done on prevention as well as remedies, both to deter perpetrators and to recompense victims.