The secret court of living hell: Straw promises to review Court of Protection after MoS exposes shocking catalogue of flaws
By Jason Lewis, Mail On Sunday Whitehall Editor
Last updated at 10:28 PM on 31st October 2009
Under fire: How The Mail On Sunday exposed activities of the Court Of Protection, which is based in this London office block
Justice Secretary Jack Straw has pledged to re-examine the workings of the secretive Court of Protection after a Mail on Sunday investigation exposed huge flaws in the system designed to look after some of Britain’s most vulnerable people.
His promise comes as more scandalous details of how the court governs the financial affairs of vulnerable people are revealed by this newspaper – a week after we exposed widespread concerns.
Mr Straw has ordered High Court judge Sir Mark Potter, president of the Family Division, to examine the court rules ‘to ensure they provide an efficient and effective service’ and said last night: ‘The Mail on Sunday has been right to raise these issues and I commend you for doing so.’
Today, the court – which bars the media and the public from its deliberations and rarely publishes its judgments – is accused of mismanaging the £2.7billion it controls on behalf of vulnerable people.
We can also disclose that the Office of the Public Guardian, which ensures families comply with the court’s judgments, faced 889 complaints in the past six months – bringing the total number of complaints in the two years since the system was overhauled by Labour to almost 4,000.
The huge sums controlled by the court are held in a Bank of England account, paying just 0.5 per cent interest a year to families of vulnerable people, which works out at a total of £13.5million a year.
Critics say the money should be held at High Street banks, which would offer at least three per cent interest and realise £81million.
The Ministry of Justice claimed it would be accused of ‘irresponsible decision-making’ if it moved the money from the Bank of England, where it is protected. But Opposition politicians said this claim was ‘ridiculous’, particularly after the Government propped up the banks last year.
It leaves some families, even those controlling multi-million-pound medical negligence awards, not earning enough interest to cover their needs and having to spend money set aside to fund a lifetime of care.
Caring family: Colin with mother Alison, father Colin Snr and brothers Cavan and Cedwyn, right
Following our investigation last week, more than 350 people left comments on The Mail on Sunday’s website and another 100 people wrote letters and emails. Relatives, friends and lawyers of people suffering Alzheimer’s or other mental incapacity due to old age, accidents or illness, exposed a catalogue of flaws in the system.
Among the cases highlighted were:
- Court officials paying the proceeds of a house sale into the wrong account.
- A young father of an eight-year-old cerebral palsy victim being accused of abusive behaviour to an official on a visit to his home – even though the official had never visited him.
- A former lawyer being charged £4,100 in legal fees to withdraw £5,800 of her own money.
- Fees of £42,000 charged to transfer a daughter’s care from her father to her mother after the father died.
- Complaints that simple applications to the court – which has just three full-time judges – took up to ten months.
Several clients died before their cases were decided.
The largest proportion of complaints regarded the interest rates, which were cut from from six per cent to just 0.5 per cent after the banking collapse last year.
Shadow Justice Secretary Henry Bellingham, who is calling for a Parliamentary debate on the ‘creaking’ system, said: ‘It is ridiculous that the Government cannot offer a better interest rate – and nonsense to say that this money would be at risk in one of the big High Street banks. The banking crisis showed that the Treasury would not let anything happen to them.’
Mr Straw revealed how he had become involved personally in the debate, as a direct result of our investigation.
He said: ‘Only yesterday, during one of my constituency surgeries in Blackburn, a family came to see me regarding the sorts of issues you raised in your article last week.
'I understand that you have been contacted by many readers following your article and can assure you that we take this very seriously. I will be examining the points raised carefully.
'I have therefore agreed for Sir Mark Potter, President of the Court of Protection, to set up a committee to review the current Court of Protection Rules to ensure they provide an efficient and effective service.
‘I do not underestimate the frustration and sometimes anger of the people in the cases you have highlighted.
My pledge is that we are listening and where changes are needed, we will make them.’
The Government has urged everyone to establish a so-called last power of attorney, or living will, to nominate someone to look after their affairs should they become incapacitated.
The system is just so cumbersome and incompetent
- Ian Johnson has managed the affairs of his aunt Eva, who suffers from dementia, since her husband died and she moved into a care home. Money from their house sale went into a Court of Protection account. When Mr Johnson got a £35,000 bill for Eva’s care costs he applied to the court for access to some money. It took five months to get it and when it came it was £10,000 short. Mr Johnson, of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, said: ‘They are incompetent. You never speak to the same person twice. I agree someone should keep an eye on us but does it need this cumbersome Government department?’
- After Martyn Chisnall’s mother Frieda descended into dementia at 98, he expected the court to quickly grant him responsibility for her and her modest savings, given that he had cared for her for 20 years – and was paying £525 a week in nursing home fees. But instead he had to wait three months. The retired fitter, of Christchurch, Dorset, said: ‘They took so long that two weeks after allowing me to access her savings, she died.’
- Linda Maunder moved to Portugal with her brain-damaged 21-year-old adopted daughter.
Her husband Tony had looked after their daughter’s affairs but when he died after a brain tumour,
Mrs Maunder applied to the court to take over control of a £1.6million criminal compensation award for the injuries her daughter suffered as a baby. Mrs Maunder said: ‘Every time pen touches paper at the Office of the Public Guardian you are charged. My daughter ended up paying around £42,000
to solicitors, barristers and accountants.’
- Christine from Suffolk sold her aunt’s home after she moved into a care home suffering from dementia. When she needed some of the £165,000 in the court fund to pay care fees, she found out officials had transferred the cash to the account of another woman who shared her aunt’s name.