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Financial abuse and the Court of Protection: What social workers need to know

Many people working in social care will come across financial abuse. Chris Gallagher and David Jones, specialists in Court of Protection work at Hugh Jones solicitors told visitors to the Social Work Show in Manchester what to look out for.

10/10/22

Financial abuse and the Court of Protection: What social workers need to know

Signs include changes in the person’s living conditions such as cupboards with less food than usual; there may be a deterioration in someone’s physical appearance, or isolation from family and friends. Their money may have been spent but there is no evidence of where it has gone, or there may be changing patterns of spending around the use of cash machines, or in writing cheques.

In England and Wales, the Court of Protection looks after the interests of those lacking capacity to make specific decisions for themselves. The court can appoint a deputy – usually a family member – who can make those decisions on behalf of a person lacking capacity

Having a deputy looking after their finances does not prevent a person from taking some decisions and deputies’ powers are limited.

“The deputy or attorney isn't given free rein to make decisions about every aspect of that person's financial affairs.” Chris Gallagher said. “Without the separate authority of the Court of Protection, a deputy is not allowed to make a will on behalf of somebody else; they're not allowed to make large gifts from that person's money; and they cannot issue legal proceedings. Financial affairs deputies and attorneys are also not allowed to make any health or welfare decisions.”

“A lot of our cases come from people like yourselves,” David Jones told the seminar. “We often see quite a lot of issues in gifting. Deputies and attorneys are allowed to make very small gifts – modest presents around Christmas and birthdays. But what we start to see as major issues are very large gifts, say a couple of hundred pounds going back to the deputy themselves to treat maybe the nephew or grandchildren. And then that grows to a very large Christmas present of £1000 -- it spirals from there, and these very large gifts are in themselves an abuse because they're disproportionate to the occasion or the size of the protected party's estate.”

He added, “Another of the more common issues we see is deputies reimbursing themselves. A deputy is entitled to some level of expense for the work they do [in that capacity]. That includes things such as petrol for travelling on behalf of a protected party – if you're taking them to an appointment, you could reclaim the cost of that journey. Where we see that going wrong is that a deputy will start to charge petrol money simply for going to see the protected person or they will fill the entire tank using the account that they manage for that person, which is using it for their own personal benefit.

David Jones said, “It is abuse around the use of assets on behalf of another without any benefit for the owner of those assets. Paying themselves for their petrol is the start; then you start to see people saying ‘well, I might do a little bit of cleaning or grocery shopping for [the protected person].’ And suddenly they start to pay themselves for that.

“One that's really quite common is use of a loyalty card. Say you are a deputy and you do the shopping for your mum, who has dementia and you put your Tesco ClubCard through the till -- that is technically financial abuse. And while it's not something you will be taken to court over, it's worth [social workers] bearing in mind these subtle actions can suddenly grow to become bigger, more serious, crimes.

“The big one we see a lot of – and sometimes it stems simply from ignorance – is use of monies, or placement of monies that someone holds for mum or dad into an account. Someone will put £5,000 of their mum’s into their own account so that they can spend mum’s money. But it's not mum's account, and she has no access to it. That £5,000 is mixed with their own money and there are no real records. That becomes a major issue and is what we call intermeddling of funds.”

“We often receive bank statements from social workers, when we're being asked to apply for deputyship. This may happen where there's a concern that a family member is [financially] abusing a client. Bank statements hold so much information. We will scour through them to really understand what's going on.

“For example, it's suspicious that anyone would spend basically their entire pension or pay packet instantly. Maybe there's a justifiable reason behind it; more often than not, there isn't. And that's what we would suggest you should be looking out for when you have a client who is vulnerable.”

Sometimes there are more subtle hints from the client such as a vulnerable person saying to the social worker, “I just don't feel like I can afford things at the moment. I'd like to go out more, but I can't as I don't have the cash.”

“Most of our clients have some form of income, and it normally is able to meet their level of need,” David Jones said. “So, if they can't manage their finances, and they aren't enjoying the things they should, or would normally, that itself is an indicator that there's something perhaps going wrong. If they're in a care home, or they're living independently with support, speak to them, speak to staff family or friends and build a scenario. That's what we do. And often that's what's already been done for us when we hear from referring social workers.”

The topic of financial abuse and the Court of Protection was discussed in a legal skills seminar at The Social Work Show last week in Manchester. To find out about other events offering free legal skills for social workers, visit www.compassjobsfair.com

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