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A secret court is seizing the assets of thousands of elderly and mentally impaired people and turning control of their lives over to the State - against the wishes of their relatives.
The draconian measures are being imposed by the little-known Court of Protection, set up two years ago to act in the interests of people suffering from Alzheimer's or other mental incapacities
The cases involve civil servants from the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG), which last year took £23million in fees directly from the bank accounts of those struck down by mental illness, involved in accidents or suffering from dementia.
The officials are legally required to act in cases where people do not have a 'living will', or lasting power of attorney, which hands control of their assets over to family or friends.
But the system elicited an extraordinary 3,000 complaints in its first 18 months of operation. Among them were allegations that officials failed to consult relatives, imposed huge fees and even 'raided' elderly people's homes searching for documents.
Carers trying to cope with a mentally impaired loved one, forced to apply for a court order to access money, said they felt the system put them under suspicion as it assumed at the outset that they were out to defraud their relatives.
Sunita Obhrai's mother Pushpa has lived in council-run sheltered housing for 15 years. About two years ago, the 76-year-old widow started to become forgetful and once left the oven on, and the fire brigade had to be called.
Miss Obhrai claims that without her knowledge the local authority, Buckinghamshire County Council, were appointed to run her mother's affairs.
She said: 'They took over running my mother's bank account and charged her over £1,000 a year in fees, and all they were doing was ensuring her rent and utility bills were paid by direct debit.
'She is given just £20 a week pocket money. Council officials even came and searched her flat while she was asleep in her bedroom. They told me they had to retrieve documents so they could do their job. But someone should have been with my mother. It is unbelievable that they can behave in this way.'
Early this year Miss Obhrai applied to the court to take over from the local authority and oversee her mother's finances herself. But the court rejected her appeal.
She said: 'Many of our other relatives and friends wrote to the court backing me, but the court ignored them. I have never done anything to harm my mother, nor would I, but the council claims I am not a fit person to look after my mother's affairs and there is little I can do to defend myself.'
The council said it could not discuss the case in detail, but did not deny that officials had let themselves into the elderly woman's home uninvited and unaccompanied by a family member. A spokeswoman said: 'The court has already deemed our action appropriate.'
The current Court of Protection replaced a previous body with the same name which had more restricted powers and was overseen by the High Court. The new body can rule on property and financial affairs and decisions relating to health and personal welfare, without referring it to a higher court.
But relatives caught up in the system say they are suddenly confronted by a legal and bureaucratic minefield.
Children's author Heather Bateman was forced to get permission from the court to use family funds after an accident left her journalist husband Michael in a coma.
In a moving account of her family's ordeal in Saga magazine, she wrote: 'Michael and I were two independent working people. We had been married for 28 years. We had written our wills, both our names were on the deeds of the house we shared in London and the Norfolk cottage we had renovated over the years.
'We had separate bank accounts and most of the bills were paid from Michael's account. Now, to continue living in the way we always had done, I needed to access the money in his account.
'The Court of Protection brought me almost as much anger, grief and frustration into my life as the accident itself. [It is] an alien, intrusive, time-consuming and costly institution, which was completely out of tune with what we were going through. It ruled my waking moments and my many sleepless nights.'
Mrs Bateman even had to apply to the court for permission to pay the couple's daughter's university fees.
She added: 'I could write as many cheques as necessary up to £500. But if I needed to access more I had to get permission from the court.'
Justice Secretary Jack Straw has pledged to re-examine the workings of the secretive Court of Protection after a Mail on Sunday investigation exposed huge flaws in the system designed to look after some of Britain’s most vulnerable people.
His promise comes as more scandalous details of how the court governs the financial affairs of vulnerable people are revealed by this newspaper – a week after we exposed widespread concerns.
Mr Straw has ordered High Court judge Sir Mark Potter, president of the Family Division, to examine the court rules ‘to ensure they provide an efficient and effective service’ and said last night: ‘The Mail on Sunday has been right to raise these issues and I commend you for doing so.’
Today, the court – which bars the media and the public from its deliberations and rarely publishes its judgments – is accused of mismanaging the £2.7billion it controls on behalf of vulnerable people.
We can also disclose that the Office of the Public Guardian, which ensures families comply with the court’s judgments, faced 889 complaints in the past six months – bringing the total number of complaints in the two years since the system was overhauled by Labour to almost 4,000.
The system is just so cumbersome and incompetent
Ian Johnson has managed the affairs of his aunt Eva, who suffers from dementia, since her husband died and she moved into a care home. Money from their house sale went into a Court of Protection account. When Mr Johnson got a £35,000 bill for Eva’s care costs he applied to the court for access to some money. It took five months to get it and when it came it was £10,000 short. Mr Johnson, of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, said: ‘They are incompetent. You never speak to the same person twice. I agree someone should keep an eye on us but does it need this cumbersome Government department?’
After Martyn Chisnall’s mother Frieda descended into dementia at 98, he expected the court to quickly grant him responsibility for her and her modest savings, given that he had cared for her for 20 years – and was paying £525 a week in nursing home fees. But instead he had to wait three months. The retired fitter, of Christchurch, Dorset, said: ‘They took so long that two weeks after allowing me to access her savings, she died.’
Linda Maunder moved to Portugal with her brain-damaged 21-year-old adopted daughter.
Her husband Tony had looked after their daughter’s affairs but when he died after a brain tumour,
Mrs Maunder applied to the court to take over control of a £1.6million criminal compensation award for the injuries her daughter suffered as a baby. Mrs Maunder said: ‘Every time pen touches paper at the Office of the Public Guardian you are charged. My daughter ended up paying around £42,000
to solicitors, barristers and accountants.’
Christine from Suffolk sold her aunt’s home after she moved into a care home suffering from dementia. When she needed some of the £165,000 in the court fund to pay care fees, she found out officials had transferred the cash to the account of another woman who shared her aunt’s name.
Receipts reveal that the Prime Minister paid his brother Andrew more than £6,500 for the use of a cleaner at his private flat in Westminster as well as claiming twice for a plumbing bill.
"You can't stop ordinary members of the Labour Party having a debate about Iraq," said Ms Riordan. "It's not taking place in the conference hall, but it is going on in the bars and the corridors."
Ms Riordan was sitting just a few rows in front of the ejected man when he began shouting.
"He was immediately surrounded by three or four stewards and physically lifted off his feet and bundled out of a side door," she said.
"The treatment was very heavy-handed. It was over the top.
"It was tactless and unnecessary. The Foreign Secretary is perfectly capable, given his experience, of dealing with hecklers."
Ms Riordan's predecessor as Halifax MP, the prominent anti-war campaigner Alice Mahon, also witnessed the incident.
She told Sky News: "We were listening to Jack talking about Iraq. This gentleman shouted 'That's rubbish, that's a lie'.
"Two or three of the security people dived on him. This other chap a couple of rows in front turned round and said 'You must be joking', because this was simple political heckling. He wasn't threatening anybody.
"He got manhandled out as well. I think they were really over the top."
The Stop the War Coalition-organised demonstration on October 24 brought the centre of London to a standstill. It was a landmark demonstration, led by Lance Corporal Joe Glenton — the first serving soldier in the British army to join an anti-war march.
The march brought together at least 10,000 protesters from across Britain, calling for all British troops to be brought home.
Joining Glenton at its head were ex-soldiers, a number of military family members — including Peter Brierley, who earlier this month refused to shake former Labour PM Tony Blair’s hand, saying it had “my son's blood on it” — and 104-year-old peace campaigner Hetty Bower.