Urgent warning about Government’s ‘risky’ online legal tool
- Local solicitor Michelle Gavin from Band Hatton Button issues warning about the Government's online tool for Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs)
- LPA tool leaving people at risk of financial abuse and fraud
- Coalition of organisations including Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE), Action on Elder Abuse, Anchor, Contact the Elderly and SOLLA are backing new report
Local solicitor Michelle Gavin from Band Hatton Button based in Coventry has joined a number of organisations representing older and vulnerable people to raise serious concerns around the Government's online tool for creating Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs).
An LPA is a powerful legal document that allows a person to appoint trusted individuals to make important decisions about care and finances on their behalf, in the event of a loss of mental capacity through an accident or illness such as dementia.
In May 2014, the Government's Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) launched its online LPA tool, which it claims allows people to create the documents without the need for professional advice from a solicitor.
But a new report, published by a coalition of organisations led by SFE, warns that anyone creating an LPA without taking specialist legal advice faces a significantly higher risk of being left with an ineffective legal document, incurring additional application fees, and even becoming a victim of fraud or coercion.
The report also raises concerns around the potential of a completely digital system proposed by the OPG, whereby 'wet signatures' - the physical signing of the document - would no longer be required.
Michelle Gavin, who is a Full Accredited member of SFE and is head of wills, trust and probate at Band Hatton Button, said: "The prospect of being able to submit an LPA application entirely digitally is extremely concerning, and raises some serious questions around the potential for fraud and financial abuse."
During a study conducted for the report, participants were invited to create LPAs using the OPG's online tool and other 'DIY' methods. The study revealed that:
- Some of the forms did not accurately express the way in which participants would want their affairs and welfare to be handled in the future
- Documents made using DIY methods were more likely to contain elementary mistakes, rendering them ineffective and requiring additional application fees
- Following consultation with a solicitor, most participants made significant changes to the permissions of their documents regarding how and by whom their affairs were managed
June McSparron, a 75-year-old who participated in the study, said: "You're exposing yourself to a lot of risk by filling this form in on your own. There are so many bits that you can get wrong, and you can easily be pressured into making choices that you're not entirely comfortable with."
The number of LPAs being registered has increased steadily since the launch of the online tool, with over half a million registered in 2015/16 alone. The OPG is actively trying to convince more people to apply for LPAs online, having set a target for the service to comprise 30% of all applications from April 2016 to March 2017. In its latest Annual Report, the OPG even admits it is willing to take 'risks' in striking a balance between 'empowering and safeguarding'.
With the OPG already receiving over 1,000 calls to its contact centre every day, the organisations behind the campaign say the Government body is potentially exposing people to unacceptable levels of risk and in doing so may be compromising its ability to safeguard those who are most vulnerable.
Michelle said: "An LPA is by far the most powerful and important legal document an individual can have, because it allows you to pass potentially life-changing decisions about your affairs on to a third party.
"It's absolutely right that people should be planning ahead for the future with LPAs, but granting someone this sort of authority over your affairs is an extremely big responsibility for all parties involved. This is a specialist area of the law, and we recommend that anyone considering an LPA goes to a legal expert to ensure they get the right advice, consider all the options, and safeguard themselves for the future."
To download the report 'The Real Cost of DIY LPAs' go to: http://www.sfe.legal
For more information, interviews and case studies please contact Anthony Di Natale on 01733 294543 / 07702 839212 / or Emily Atkinson on 0203 6965800 / 07762969541 /
SFE (Solicitors for the Elderly) is an independent, national organisation of over 1,500 lawyers, such as solicitors, barristers, and chartered legal executives, who provide specialist legal advice for older and vulnerable people, their families and carers.
The main areas of law members cover are:
- Powers of Attorney
- Making a Will
- Living Wills
- Tax planning
- Asset preservation
- Paying for care
- NHS Continuing Care Funding
- Will disputes
- Court of Protection
- Elder abuse
In order to be a fully accredited 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.
Clients of SFE members can also be reassured by the SFE code of practice and safety of redress through the members' regulatory bodies, should something go wrong.
For more information about SFE or our members, please visit www.sfe.legal or call us on 0844 567 6173 to find an SFE member near you.
Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA)
An LPA is a legal document that allows a person to appoint someone to manage their affairs, such as their property and finances or their health and care, if they become too ill to do so themselves due to an accident or illness like dementia.
The Office of the Public Guardian (OPG)
The OPG is an executive agency, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, to protect people in England and Wales who may not have the mental capacity to make certain decisions for themselves, such as about their health and finance. All LPAs are registered by the OPG. In May 2014, the OPG launched its online LPA tool which it claims allows people to create the documents without the need for professional advice from a solicitor.
Participants from a range of backgrounds, all of whom had previously been considering creating an LPA, were asked to complete an LPA using either an 'off-the-shelf' kit or the OPG's online service. The resulting documents were analysed by legal professionals to identify any issues. Participants then received a consultation with a qualified SFE solicitor, and were asked to compare this experience with that of using a DIY method. The study took place between 4th-11th July 2016.
The off-the-shelf kit used in the study was the 'Power of Attorney' kit from Law Pack, a private publishing company.
SFE's report is supported by a number of organisations which represent and provide services for older and vulnerable people:
- Action on Elder Abuse - Action on Elder Abuse (AEA) is a specialist organisation that focuses exclusively on the issue of elder abuse. Established in 1993 by a group of practitioners from health and social care, AEA addresses abuse within people's own homes (whether by family, friends or paid staff), within sheltered housing, and within care homes and hospitals. To find out more go to: http://elderabuse.org.uk
- Anchor - With almost 50 years of experience, Anchor is England's largest not-for-profit provider of housing and care for older people. Anchor has more than 100 care homes throughout England, offering a range of residential care and dementia care, enabling older people to get the best out of life. To find out more got to: http://www.anchor.org.uk
- Contact the Elderly - Contact the Elderly is the only national charity solely dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation among older people. Supported by a network of volunteers, the charity organises monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for small groups of older people, aged 75 and over, who live alone. To find our more got to: http://www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk
- SOLLA - SOLLA (The Society of Later Life Advisers) was founded in 2008 as a not-for-profit organisation, to meet the need of consumers, advisers and those who provide financial products and services to the later life market. Its aim is to ensure that people are better informed about the financial issues of later life and can find a fully accredited adviser quickly and easily. To find out more got to: http://societyoflaterlifeadvisers.co.uk