Attwood Marshall Lawyers Wills and Estates Senior Associate and Accredited Aged Care Professional Debbie Sage is a passionate advocate of the safety and wellbeing of Queensland’s elderly community. Debbie is fiercely campaigning to introduce new laws that specifically criminalise elder abuse.
On Friday 8th July, an opportunity presented itself to speak at the Liberal National Party 2022 Annual Convention held at the Royal International Convention Centre at the RNA Showgrounds in Brisbane, to address hundreds of LNP Members and their Members of Parliament to bring attention to the inefficiency of our current laws in protecting the elderly from abuse.
Elder abuse has been a significant welfare issue in Australia for many years, but in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue has only gotten worse. That is why the time has come to fight for change to protect our seniors from the devastating effects of elder abuse and hold perpetrators to account.
We are calling for the criminalisation of elder abuse so that legislation may be enacted to ensure that acts of this nature can be specifically identified as a criminal offence in Queensland.
What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse comprises any behaviour or action within a relationship of trust that harms an older person. It includes financial abuse, psychological abuse, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and social isolation.
AIFS’ research into elder abuse has included developing a usable definition of elder abuse and examining the nature of elder abuse and its prevalence in the Australian population.
Their findings include that 1 in 6 senior Australians is experiencing some form of abuse.
People with poor physical or psychological health and higher levels of social isolation are more likely to experience elder abuse.
The criminalisation of elder abuse in the ACT
On 20 April 2021, new laws came into effect in the ACT to provide additional protections for vulnerable adults via the Crimes (Offences against Vulnerable People) Legislation Amendment Act.
The Act introduced three new offences, including:
- Abuse of a vulnerable person – which criminalises abusive conduct (including financial abuse) by a person who is responsible for the care of a vulnerable person;
- Failure to protect a vulnerable person from a criminal offence, which criminalises the failure of a person in authority within an institution to protect the vulnerable person in their care; and
- Neglect of a vulnerable person – which criminalises the neglect of a vulnerable person by someone responsible for that person’s care.
The ACT is the first jurisdiction to introduce such laws in Australia, however there are many countries around the world that have similar laws in place.
In 2002, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called on the scientific and professional community to develop global strategies for the prevention of abuse against older people, declaring that elder abuse was unacceptable. They acknowledged that elder abuse was not an individual or family problem but a much larger societal concern that requires sound policies linked to real commitment to prevent its occurrence, and that policy and advocacy are important partners in the fight against elder abuse.
Why Queensland must implement change
As a Wills and Estates Lawyer and Aged Care Professional who has worked in this area for over 17 years, it is clear to see that our Government needs to do more to protect the most vulnerable in our community.
Queensland is known to have an increasingly ageing population, and although there is a dedicated task force within the Queensland Police Service to assist with the prevention of elder abuse, it is simply not enough.
The Elder Abuse Prevention Unit have reported that it is taking at least 12 months to investigate into reported cases of abuse.
Advocacy QLD, the Aged & Disability Advocacy and Relationships Australia are also experiencing the same delays and are sometimes unable to answer all the calls that are coming through.
In addition to the existing support services being overwhelmed, it is apparent from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which delivered their final report on 1 March 2021, titled ‘Care, Dignity and Respect’, that there is an abundance of cases of neglect and various other forms of abuse happening within aged care facilities. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved with any of the recommendations which have been implemented since the Royal Commission handed down its report.
The evidence at the Royal Commission and increasing case studies within the community show that many instances of abuse are slipping through the cracks as we do not have appropriate legislation in place to pursue, convict and deter offenders.
Law reforms should support effective criminal justice pathways for victims of elder abuse and recognise the increased vulnerability of older persons and those with a disability. Legislation must deter criminal conduct and raise awareness of these significant issues.
Adopting this policy will create an opportunity to enact laws which will defend some of our most vulnerable community members with meaningful outcomes.
Learning from what other states and countries have implemented
Although the ACT is the first jurisdiction to introduce such laws in Australia, there are numerous countries around the world with laws that are specifically designed to criminalise elder abuse.
For example, Israel have had laws in place to protect the elderly from abuse since 1991.
Costa Rica passed laws in November 1999 which penalised physical and sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and patrimonial violence against older adults.
The Vietnam Association for the Elderly cites a wide-ranging “Elderly Law” approved in Vietnam, which was established in 2009.
Chile amended existing legislation in 2010 to include more explicit references to elder abuse.
The Constitutions of the Bolivian Republic of Venezuela, Brazil, Costa Rica, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, and the Plurinational State of Bolivia expressly state that older persons are entitled to special types of protection by the State.
The Dominican Republic have several laws covering negligence, exploitation and violence against older persons. It also has a new Penal Code that sanctions the abandonment of an older person who needs protection.
The United States have a large number of laws across their states and territories designed to protect the elderly from abuse, and to help guide the practice of adult protective services agencies and law enforcement agencies among others.
It is time for Queensland to put legislation in place that will formally recognise the increased vulnerability of older persons and those with a disability.
The vulnerability of an elderly or disabled person requires specific laws to deal with a specific type of offending that is clearly on the rise.
People and institutions have not been subject to enough prosecution when perpetrating these types of offences.
When connecting with the greater community and our clients, the feedback we have received regarding specific new laws to tackle elder abuse is that they would welcome legislative change to address the issue.
Introducing such legislation will give our law enforcement agencies the framework they need to crack down on abusers and provide Queenslanders with confidence in their state’s ability to protect them when transitioning to aged care or reaching a later stage in life.
We will continue to advocate for legislative change in Queensland.
Attwood Marshall Lawyers – Leading Elder Law firm supporting people through all stages of life
We have played a dominant role in protecting the interests of the elderly in our community. With many long-standing elderly clients whom we act for, it is our renowned intent to provide expert knowledge and advice on issues related to elder law including estate planning, estate administration, estate litigation, transitioning to aged care, and elder abuse.
We are driven to facilitate change and raise awareness on how elder abuse is impacting those most vulnerable in our community.
It can be extremely difficult for anyone to feel comfortable speaking about and asking for help who is put in this situation. That is why we are campaigning for change!
If you would like to speak to our dedicated elder law team, please contact Wills and Estates and Aged Care Department Manager, Donna Tolley, on direct line 07 5506 8241, email firstname.lastname@example.org or book an appointment online instantly by clicking here. We also have a 24/7 phone line available which we can be reached on by phoning 1800 621 071.
We look forward to providing further updates on our progress in advocating for change and supporting older Australians.