Guardianship law delay causing 'distress', Labour warns
Interests of missing people best served by a court-appointed guardian, says Clifford Chance lawyer
The Labour party has called on the Lord Chancellor to include a 'guardianship law' in tomorrow's Queen's Speech to create a new mechanism that will protect the property and affairs of missing people.
In 2015 Justice Minister Lord Faulks announced that the government intended to bring forward legislation on the issue, saying: 'When someone suddenly disappears, their affairs can be thrown into disarray, adding to the distress and emotional heartbreak experienced by family members.
'That is why I am pleased to announce new measures that will give legal powers to families, allowing them to take charge of their missing family member's property and financial affairs.'
However, speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on legal guardianship and missing people on 23 March 2016, junior minister Dominic Raab said that while the government was committed to delivering reform, there was no timetable for the legislation to be introduced.
The move from Labour follows a cross-party campaign of MPs who have written to the secretary of state for justice, Michael Gove, highlighting that 'when someone goes missing their families are often left unable to manage their affairs'.
In a recent letter to the justice secretary, MPs argued that the lack of a guardian law had 'resulted in mortgages being left unpaid, risking repossession, and direct debits not being cancelled, risking insolvency'.
'This is because banks and third parties can only deal with their customer directly due to data protection and contract law,' the letter continues. 'When someone is missing this is clearly not possible; we need more clarity on this issue for all parties.'
A briefing document from the House of Commons Library suggested that the lack of current legislation can 'lead to serious practical problems'.
Labour's shadow justice minister, Christina Rees, has warned that the government's delay in dealing with the issue was causing serious distress to those who are 'already experiencing emotional trauma due to a missing loved one'.
'The Queen's Speech is an ideal opportunity for the government to reaffirm its commitment to introducing this legislation and reassure families who have already been waiting too long,' she said.
Charity Missing People has also been campaigning to have a guardianship law inserted into tomorrow's Queen's Speech. The charity has been receiving pro bono support from Clifford Chance.
Patricia Barratt, director of anti-bribery compliance at the Magic Circle firm and who has been working with Missing People, said: 'There is a real need for a mechanism to enable the families of people who have gone missing to deal with their property and financial affairs while they are missing.
'We have been working pro bono with the charity Missing People and with the Ministry of Justice to try to achieve this, and a government consultation last year elicited an overwhelmingly positive response.
'Naturally, safeguards must be in place to protect the interests of the missing person, but their interests are likely to be much better served where issues that arise can be addressed by a court-appointed guardian, rather than simply being neglected because no one has authority to act.'