Ways to deal with the tragic problem of elder abuse have been explored at the National Elder Abuse Conference held recently. At the conference the attorney general, Christian Porter, announced a national plan to tackle elder abuse, to be developed by the Council of Attorneys General this year. One of the recommendations to the attorney general from National Legal Aid related to the potential for an effective elder abuse mediation model to be created which is similar to that used in child custody disputes.
National Legal Aid chairman Graham Hill suggested that an elder abuse mediation model could effectively be modelled on that used in family law for child custody mediation, which he said “has a 90% success rate”.
With our ageing population, the problem of elder abuse is expected to continue to worsen in Australia, but so far there has been no firm data on the extent of the problem. The national plan, a recommendation of a report by the Australian Law Reform Commission, will address the pressing need to research the scale of the problem. The Guardian reports that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that globally, between 2% and 14% of all people aged 65 and over are experiencing at least one instance of elder abuse every year.
According to WHO, elder abuse refers to “a single, or repeated, act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person”. Cases of elder abuse can involve anything from financial disputes to physical violence to the need to establish visitation rights for grandparents. Sadly, the abuse is typically perpetrated by family members.
Mr Hill said the mediation services developed to deal with child custody disputes could be equally effective at resolving cases of elder abuse. The child custody model might be particularly suitable in cases of elder abuse with clear parallels to family law issues, such as “when parents are preventing an older person from seeing their grandchild, or in financial disputes where property has become shared”.
“The family court has said that grandparents do have a right to have contact with grandchildren, but those rights are theoretical until legal aid has the funding to pay for a lawyer to go to court and get an order,” Mr Hill said.
“[Mediation] is so much better than court because court destroys relationships …whereas mediation tries to enhance relationships in a family setting,” Mr Hill said. “We have put to the attorney general’s department that this service could be applied to cases of elder abuse, which can be quite sensitive with family involved.”
Last June, a new elder abuse mediation and conflict resolution service, Respecting Elders, was launched in Victoria to deal specifically with cases of elder abuse in a non-adversarial way. Respecting Elders is a partnership between FMC Mediation and Consulting, Seniors Rights Victoria and Eastern Community Legal Centre. Its CEO, Serge Sardo, said it provided “a non threatening way for older people to resolve conflict in their lives”. The service was hailed as “an innovative model that aims to support and empower older people experiencing abuse” at its launch by Age Discrimination Commissioner Dr Kay Patterson. She noted that many older people did not wish to involve authorities in resolving conflicts. This is understandable, considering that when elder abuse is reported to police, older complainants may not be considered “good witnesses for reasons of frailty, senility, poor memory or lack of understanding of the legal system”. Older people also experience shame in relation to elder abuse, which leads to under-reporting too.
In 2017, Australia’s legal aid commissions provided 1,500 grants of aid for legal representation, 4,000 duty lawyer sessions, and 17,000 instances of legal advice to people aged over 65. But for legal aid commissions to act in the increasing instances of elder abuse, it’s clear they will require more funding for civil law services. For example, Mr Hill noted that dealing with elder abuse requires funding for legal outreach services to enable lawyers “to go to aged care homes and into the homes of people who are housebound by a carer, who may be the person perpetuating the abuse.”
As the ALRC report noted, “Ageing eventually comes to all Australians and ensuring that all older people live dignified and autonomous lives free from the pain and degradation of elder abuse must be a priority”.
Read more about the National Plan to prevent elder abuse
Source: The Guardian
Do you need legal advice in relation to possible elder abuse or elder abuse mediation services? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law (02) 6223 2400.
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