Elder abuse and the law

It’s difficult and uncomfortable to define “Elder abuse”. It’s a broad brush term used to define a range of physical, psychological, sexual and financial abuse or neglect directed towards older people in the community.

It’s often an almost invisible form of abuse, occurring as it does in the private confines of trust relationships including family, friends care facilities and the general neighbourhood. A stranger mugging and injuring an older person on the street makes headlines. A son or daughter accessing an “early inheritance” of their parents’ assets through emotional blackmail and bully tactics may never see the light of day.

A 2016 report highlights that between 2% and 10% of older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year. The prevalence of neglect is possibly higher. Adult children abusing parents is the most common scenario, with financial abuse appearing to be the most common form of elder abuse.

An inquiry into laws and frameworks to safeguard older Australians from abuse has just been announced by Attorney-General George Brandis, with a report due in May 2017. The inquiry is tasked with scrutinising the existing Commonwealth, state and territory manages elder abuse differently. Scope of the inquiry will be broad, targeting areas of federal jurisdiction, such as financial institutions, superannuation, social security, aged care and health.

The misuse of Powers of Attorney to perpetrate financial abuse needs urgent attention. Currently, powers of attorney do not have to be registered, and once appointed, can be difficult to revoke. Obtaining a national legislative approach to this issue, to replace the differing, often conflicting state/territory legislative approaches to Powers of Attorney, would be helpful. This could also include setting up a national register of powers of attorney.

Access to justice for older people is also a key issue. The reluctance of older people to report abuse by family members, let alone go to Court, is a major barrier to reform. Alternative out-of-court forms of dispute resolution should be considered.

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