October 1 was the International Day of Older Persons (also International Coffee Day, but that’s another story) and to mark the occasion Attorney-General George Brandis made some quite useful announcements aimed at addressing elder abuse.
The Government will fund the establishment of a “knowledge hub” to serve as an online gateway for raising awareness and providing information and training for the public and professionals about preventing and responding to elder abuse.
The Government is also giving money to establish a national peak body, Elder Abuse Action Australia.
These initiatives, and the recent establishment of an inter-government elder abuse working group, flow from recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission, which released a major report on elder abuse in June.
What has been missing from the public policy discussion since then is any response from the financial services industry. Given the heavy emphasis in the report on superannuation and banking, some response should have been forthcoming.
According to the report, financial abuse of older people may involve the use of deception or threats to coerce them to contribute, withdraw or transfer superannuation funds or to spend those funds in a way that benefits the abuser.
It might also involve making a binding death benefit nomination in favour of an abuser.
The report says abuse also involves misusing funds in a bank or other financial institution. Money may simply be withdrawn from an older person’s account or used to pay someone else’s bill without the account holder’s permission.
The report also reviewed abuse of estate planning arrangements, such as family agreements and appointed decision-makers, and made recommendations for adding greater safeguards in these arrangements.
It has recommended a review of the way death benefit nominations are drafted.
The ALRC wants the steps that banks take to prevent financial abuse of elders to be prescribed in the Code of Banking Practice and be legally binding.
The Code should require banks will take “reasonable steps” to prevent financial abuse of older customers. The code should cover appropriate training of staff and use of software to detect suspicious transactions.
There is currently an Australian Bankers Association guide to how banks might respond to elder abuse but it is voluntary and unenforceable. The ALRC would prefer to see the guidelines set out in the code, which would make them legally enforceable.
The ALRC says financial institutions can help prevent abuse by raising awareness, by informing customers of steps they can take to protect themselves and by intervening when they detect abuse.
So far, the industry has not done much in response. It’s time it did.