SECRET COURT SEIZES [Pounds Sterling]3.2bn FROM ELDERLY FROM ELDERLY; 3,000 Complaints in First 18 Months of New System; Families Made to Pay to Access Own Bank Account; Homes of Elderly Raided in Search for Documents

Article excerpt

Byline: Jason Lewis WHITEHALL EDITOR

A SECRET court is seizing the assets of thousands of elderly and mentally impaired people and turning control of their lives over to the State - against the wishes of their relatives.

The draconian measures are being imposed by the little-known Court of Protection, set up two years ago to act in the interests of people suffering from Alzheimer's or other mental incapacity.

The court hears about 23,000 cases a year - always in private - involving people deemed unable to take their own decisions. A Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed that the court, using far-reaching powers, has so far taken control of more than [pounds sterling]3.2 billion of assets.

The cases involve civil servants from the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG), which last year took [pounds sterling]23million in fees directly from the bank accounts of those struck down by mental illness, involved in accidents or suffering from dementia.

The officials are legally required to act in cases where people do not have a 'living will', or lasting power of attorney, which hands control of their assets over to family or friends. But the system elicited an extraordinary 3,000 complaints in its first 18 months of operation. Among them were allegations that officials failed to consult relatives., imposed huge fees and even 'raided' elderly people's homes searching for documents.

Carers trying to cope with a mentally impaired loved one, forced to apply for a court order to access money, said they felt the system put them under suspicion as it assumed at the outset that they were out to defraud their relatives.

Last night opposition politicians said the system, set up by Justice Secretary Jack Straw, needed to be overhauled to take account of the fact that most people were 'honourable and decent' and had their loved ones' best interests at heart. The Government now says everyone should establish a lasting power of attorney to state who should look after their affairs should they become incapacitated - although most people will be utterly unaware of this advice.

Only 60,000 people in Britain have registered these 'living wills' with the authorities, and the problems begin when someone is suddenly, unexpectedly mentally impaired. Without this document, relatives. must apply to the courts and the anonymous OPG, part of the Ministry of Justice based in an office block in Birmingham, is required to look into the background of carers to decide if they are fit to run the ill or elderly person's affairs.

The organisation has 300 staff, costs [pounds sterling]26.5million a year to run and is headed by [pounds sterling]80,000-a-year career civil servant Martin John, a former head of asylum and immigration policy in Whitehall. It prepares reports for the Court of Protection, based in a tower block in Archway, North London.

In many cases relatives. have to complete a 50-page form giving huge amounts of personal information about themselves, their family, their own finances and their relationship with the person they wish to help care for.

The majority of applications are decided on the basis of paper evidence without holding a hearing. But applications relating to personal welfare, or large gifts or settlements, may be contentious and require the court to hold a hearing to decide the case.

These hearings, before a senior judge, examine evidence and witnesses, who can be compelled to appear. The court has the same powers as the High Court, but is closed to all but the parties involved in the case and their lawyers. The Press and public are banned.

The presiding judge then decides whether a family member can become a 'deputy' acting for their mentally impaired loved one. If no one is available, or if the judge decides a family member is not suitable, the court can appoint a local authority or in some cases a solicitor to carry out the task. …