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Claudia’s Law – long awaited legal lifeline for families of missing people

A new law enabling the families of people who have gone missing to apply for powers to look after their financial and legal affairs whilst they’re gone, comes into force at the end of this month (31 July 2019).

Claudia’s Law, named after the chef Claudia Lawrence who disappeared in 2009, creates a new legal status of guardian of the affairs of a loved one, enabling an appointed person to act in the best interests of someone who has been missing for 90 days or more.

‘Such a difference’

It has been heralded as a victory by Claudia’s father, Peter, who has campaigned long and hard for a change in the law alongside the charity Missing People.

Claudia, aged 35, vanished on her way to work as a chef at the University of York. North Yorkshire police believe she was murdered but no-one has ever been charged.

Peter Lawrence said: “I am delighted that Claudia’s Law is coming into force at the end of July.

“This will make such a difference to the lives of the hundreds of families who have been waiting so long for it, enabling them to deal with their missing loved one’s financial and property affairs in the same way as everyone else is able to on a daily basis.

“One less burden at a time when families are at their emotional lowest ebb will help enormously.”

Background

Around 180,000 people disappear every year with an estimated 3,800 adults missing for longer than a week.

Up until now it has been impossible for family members and third parties to step in and manage the finances of a missing loved one until seven years has passed and they are presumed dead under the Presumption of Death Act 2013.

The family then has to obtain a Declaration of Presumed Death certificate, often something they don’t want to do when they are still hoping and praying the missing person will return to them.

Before that time, they have no right to step in and handle the missing person’s affairs which can be deeply distressing when there is a property with mortgage payments to be paid, direct debits going out of accounts that cannot be cancelled and business matters that need attending to.

How will the new Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act work? 

From 31 July 2019 an application can be made to the High Court for a guardian to be appointed after someone has been missing for 90 days. Key points include:

  • A guardian will only be appointed if the missing person has assets to be managed and the success of any application for guardianship will depend on the evidence submitted;
  • An appointed guardian has the authority to manage the missing person’s finances and mitigate any losses in their best interests;
  • A guardianship lasts a maximum of four years and if it needs to continue after that time, another application must be made to the High Court;
  • More than one guardian can be appointed for the same missing person, for example a professional guardian for business assets and a family member as guardian for personal finance issues;
  • All guardians must put a security bond in place, already a requirement for deputies for property and affairs, and the same providers are likely to be used.  Accounting for decisions made will be supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) in a similar way to its supervision of deputies;
  • If the missing person returns, an application must be made back to the High Court to revoke the guardianship. It would also be automatically revoked if it turns out the missing person has died or when the presumption of death applies.

There are currently no plans for the OPG to set up a panel of professional guardians and it is unclear how often it might be appropriate to appoint a professional to this role.

However, Wards Solicitors, with experience of managing the financial affairs of people who lack capacity (for example panel deputies), is well placed to assist in these cases if a professional guardian is required.

For help and guidance about this area of the law, please contact Wards Solicitors’ specialist Court of Protection team.

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