Select Committee into Elder Abuse — Final Report —
“‘I never thought it would happen to me’: When trust is broken” — Motion
Resumed from 18 September on the following motion moved by Hon Nick Goiran —
That the report be noted.
Hon ALISON XAMON: When I was last addressing the chamber on this issue, I was talking about the particular findings in chapter 6 of this report around access to justice for older people experiencing elder abuse. I was explaining how the committee had received evidence that, unfortunately, older people in Western Australia were finding it very difficult to receive appropriate legal advice to find out whether they were being subject to elder abuse. There was often a lot of confusion from people about whether what they were being subjected to constituted abuse, and most certainly they had difficulty getting advice about how to deal with problems, particularly with their adult children trying to access their money, through either straight-out theft or sometimes more insidiously through abuse of things like powers of attorney. We found that there is a centre of excellence in the community legal sector, the Northern Suburbs Community Legal Centre, which has set up an older adults legal service to specifically look at issues of elder abuse. It has been undertaking, and continues to undertake, some really proactive and quite admirable initiatives in the community. As well as offering advice to people who come to the centre for assistance, it is also able to offer community outreach, running community workshops to bring older people together.
The DEPUTY CHAIR: Hon Alison Xamon.
Hon ALISON XAMON: These workshops ensure that people are able to proactively take measures to best protect their money and assets, and to be aware of the warning signs of inappropriate conduct by family members and others that would effectively constitute elder abuse. At the time of the inquiry, the committee found that there was a huge problem with the lack of access to specialised legal services across Western Australia. Effectively, only people who happen to live within the northern suburbs catchment—what a fine place to live, by the way—are able to access this particular resource. This is a problem for other community legal centres that want to refer people to the service to get assistance, but the centre was not funded to take people beyond the northern suburbs. It is also a problem for Advocare, the organisation specifically funded by the government to be the first port of call for people to find out more about the risks of elder abuse and the possibility of referral. Advocare was able to refer someone who lived in the northern suburbs, but otherwise was not able to access the Northern Suburbs Community Legal Centre. Recommendation 13 in the report states —
The Government ensure that every older person in Western Australia, regardless of where they reside, has access to specialised community legal services which provide advocacy and advice on elder abuse.
As I started to comment before we ran out of time last week, I was pleased to see that this government, following some of the recommendations of this very important report, had established an elder abuse unit within Legal Aid WA, and this unit was to provide specialist services to prevent and raise awareness of elder abuse, and to safeguard the rights of older Western Australians. The staff at the elder abuse unit will include family violence lawyers, to help older people get restraining orders if they have been victims of violence at the hands of family members; and lawyers who specialise in civil law, to help older people who have been victims of “assets for care” arrangements or have been forced to use their home as security for a loan to their adult children. Unfortunately, the committee heard far too much evidence about how often those scenarios occur. Honestly, that is very distressing. The elder abuse unit will also include family lawyers, to help older people get orders enabling contact with grandchildren if adult children are unreasonably withholding contact. Legal Aid has also said that its Infoline receives thousands of calls each year about elder abuse.
Legal Aid WA has been able to provide these sorts of services for some time. However, the committee received evidence that the provision of those services is nowhere near sufficient. Precious few people have been able to access the good services that are provided by Legal Aid WA. In April, Legal Aid WA announced that it had decided to better coordinate its services by creating a seniors’ rights and advocacy service. That service will provide free legal advice and assistance to older people who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing elder abuse, and coordinate and triage elder abuse services that are provided across all the practice areas at Legal Aid WA, such as family and domestic violence, family law and civil law.
It is important that we are proactive and help people plan for their future by providing them with appropriate advice about enduring powers of attorney and enduring powers of guardianship, and advance health directives. I will go into detail about that at a future time, because that is part of the important work that is contained within this report. I am still waiting to see any reform from this government in that area. I hope we will see that reform sooner rather than later, because the evidence to the committee was that it is a huge problem, on which we need to do some urgent work. It is good that Legal Aid WA has found a better way to provide those services. However, members, even though I am glad that Legal Aid WA has decided to coordinate a lot of the services that it delivers and is looking at potentially providing additional support to enable people to be better prepared for their future, it is nowhere near close to meeting recommendation 13 of the committee.
The committee found that community legal centres are the best avenue by which to deliver these services. That is because community legal centres can be, and are, localised. That means that, regardless of whether a person lives in Bunbury, Albany or the Kimberley, they are able to access a service close to where they live. It is often difficult to access legal advice and assistance through Legal Aid WA. In any event, the additional funding that has been invested in Legal Aid WA is not sufficient to meet the community demand, which the committee found will continue to escalate. I want to put on the record that, unfortunately, we are yet to see full implementation of recommendation 13. We need additional investment into our community legal centres to ensure they have the capacity to assist people who are experiencing elder abuse or at risk of experiencing elder abuse and turn up at their door.
We need to have a broader discussion about the delivery of legal services in our community legal centres. Over the decades, the CLCs have moved to various models of centres of excellence. That has worked well. In the past, we had the employment law centre. I note that that is about to merge. I was the chair of that centre at one time. We also had the mental health law centre, which is about to merge. I worked as a pro bono lawyer at that centre. The women’s law centre is also a centre of excellence. I was on the committee of that centre. That range of specialist CLCs has served the community well. The northern suburbs specialist service has also been a specific centre of excellence. However, regardless of whether CLCs work on a hub-and-spoke model, with a specialist service that is equipped to provide assistance to all CLCs, or whether they work under a model of referral pathways into one service, we still have not funded our CLCs sufficiently. We need to be mindful of that. CLCs usually run on an absolute pittance. Our CLCS are probably one of the most poorly funded organisations in the not-for-profit sector. The federal government has seen fit to slowly withdraw funding to CLCs. The CLCs are constantly stretched. The good lawyers who work in our CLCs are not paid anywhere near what they would get if they were working as lawyers anywhere else. The government pretty much has an exploited workforce, so it is value for money. It would be worth looking at investing more funding in our CLCs.
The DEPUTY CHAIR (Hon Adele Farina): Hon Alison Xamon.
Hon ALISON XAMON: We need to raise awareness of elder abuse. The concerns about the increasing rate of elder abuse have been realised. We need to provide a commensurate level of funding to ensure that people can seek legal advice readily and easily. The committee found that CLCs are the best way to deliver these services. Therefore, I am very glad that some effort has been put into Legal Aid WA, because Legal Aid WA is often the first port of call for people who seek assistance. I also note that Legal Aid WA has been one of the main referral pathways to CLCs in a range of areas. We need to ensure that our CLCs are well equipped to deal with elder abuse issues. If people are able to seek remedy or obtain the appropriate level of advice and support, ideally that will help prevent elder abuse from occurring in the first place. That is obviously the best outcome. People want to be able to maintain their family and their relationships with their family. People do not want to lose all their money. Therefore, it is desirable that the government initiates additional funding in this area. I am waiting to see some progress on this matter. I am also waiting to see the implementation of recommendation 13 of the committee.
Comments and speeches from various members
Hon ALISON XAMON: I thank the honourable member for his comments about retirement and lifestyle villages. It is important to provide a little explanation. It is absolutely the case, as it says in the report, that the committee received evidence from a number of people who were very concerned about the issue of unconscionable contracts within retirement and lifestyle villages. The concern was that this potentially fell within the scope of the inquiry because we are talking about people who are uniformly older people. There was a deep concern that they were being subject to deeply unscrupulous and exploitative behaviours as a result of practices by owners and managers of various retirement villages. The beginning of the report relates to the establishment of the committee by this Parliament. Unfortunately, it was way beyond the scope of the committee’s terms of reference to look at unconscionable contracts within retirement villages. The report points out that the committee was of view that this absolutely warranted further investigation.
As the committee canvassed extensively in chapter 2 of its report, there was a lot of discussion about what constitutes elder abuse. The committee was presented with a number of different definitions. After taking into account extensive submissions, including international evidence and other work that has been done around this, the committee’s agreed finding was —
Elder abuse is defined as a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, that occurs in a relationship ... where there is an expectation of trust and where that action causes harm or distress to the older person.
Members need to be mindful that it came down to relationships that have an expectation of trust. Elder abuse, for example, does not involve a complete stranger stealing from an older person. That is not elder abuse—it is abuse towards an older person, but it is not elder abuse. Likewise, an unconscionable contract is a contract that may have been able to be instigated on someone because of their vulnerabilities, including the fact they are old. That in itself does not constitute elder abuse. Even though significant evidence was tendered to the committee related to concerns about unconscionable contracts in some retirement villages, it was unfortunately way beyond the scope of what the committee was able to look at.
I would of course remind members that towards the end of last year—it would have been November or December; I cannot quite remember—I moved a motion in this place calling on the government to urgently deal with a second tranche of reform that is required for retirement villages. That was precisely because this is such a huge issue. To refresh members’ memories, there was an important significant tranche of reform back in 2012 about the way retirement villages operated. Unfortunately, we are still waiting, seven years later, for that anticipated second tranche of reform. I am aware that the minister responsible—in this instance it is Minister Bill Johnston—has been working with retirement village associations and has been undergoing a consultation process to try to ensure that we will see those reforms. We were originally told we would be able to see those reforms towards the end of this year. It would seem that that is not necessarily going to happen, although I note the other place seems to be bringing in a suite of legislation now that it is no longer dealing with the voluntary assisted dying legislation. Nevertheless, I am yet to see whether those reforms, which we were promised, will be forthcoming.
I want to explain a little more about why dealing with this issue, although it was absolutely part of submissions, was not able to be part of the terms of reference and hence consideration by this committee. It is a really important issue. If we do not address issues of unconscionable contracts around retirement villages, more problems will emerge around this, not fewer, because the population is ageing and retirement villages are increasingly a popular option for people as they downsize in their later years. I think that reinforces why it is important that the minister bring forward these reforms after having appropriately consulted, but sooner rather than later. I certainly hope we will see it in this term of government. The year 2012 is a very long way away now and it has been too long since we have seen the second tranche of promised reforms. I know people within the Australian Retirement Villages Residents’ Association are getting increasingly frustrated. I thank the member for drawing our attention specifically to the provisions of retirement and lifestyle villages on page 5 of the report. It is an important issue. Let us hope we see the promised reforms sooner rather than later.
Comments and speeches from various members
Consideration of report postponed, pursuant to standing orders.