Thursday, July 10, 2014
One of the effects of "devolution" in the United Kingdom has been opportunities for Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland to consider afresh their domestic laws and policy guidelines, separate from the mandates of Parliament in London. As those following recent UK news will know, Scotland this has gone beyond mere "home rule." A referendum vote on full independence is scheduled in Scotland for September 18, 2014.
Northern Ireland has not moved as quickly on adoption of domestic laws and policies. In part because of interruptions in efforts to fully establish home rule following disruptions of violence and the "Troubles," the process of enacting NI domestic laws has been slower paced than in Wales or Scotland, even after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Nonetheless, high on the domestic agenda in NI have been laws and policies related to older people. One of the first modern era laws passed by Stormont was domestic legislation that established an independent Commissioner of Older People for NI. The discussions on that law overlapped with my Fulbright year and sabbatical in NI in 2009-10, and resulted in passage in January 2011.
The first Commissioner, Claire Keatinge, was appointed to a four year term in November of 2011. In my observation, Claire is a force of nature and if anyone can create a clear path to establish ageing as a priority matter for action in NI, it will be this dynamo.
On June 25, Commissioner Keatinge presented her call for fresh adult safeguarding legislation in NI. With emerging data suggesting significant increases in the number of cases of alleged abuse of older people, Commissioner Keatinge commissioned an evaluation of existing laws and comparative approaches in other nations. She asked whether and how NI can better protect adults from abuse, including physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse. After receipt of the academics' report, her in-house legal team responded, helping her present a clear written call for action, a template for legislation.
As explained in her launch on June 25, the Commissioner advocates for:
- Clear definition of "adult at risk," the target term for safeguarding measures and not limited to older adults, as well as enhanced definitions of abuse or harm, and especially of financial abuse;
- Establishment of an adult safeguarding board, with statutory powers;
- Specific duties for relevant bodies and organizations within NI to report, investigate, provide services and cooperate with other agencies to order to better protect "adults at risk;"
- Specific powers of access to an individual believed to be at risk of harm or abuse, to defuse the potential for the abuser to influence the investigation process; and
- Protection from civil liability for those making reports of suspected abuse.
Further, Commissioner Keatinge recommends additional consideration be given to whether an Adult Safeguarding Bill -- as a single piece of legislation -- should grant specific powers to authorities to remove an individual at risk or ban a suspected abuse from contact. Her call for action recommends consideration of a specific grant of power to access financial records, often deemed crucial to investigation of financial risk and proof of abuse. Also on the Commissioner's radar screen is the potential adoption of specific criminal charges for "elder abuse" or "corporate neglect."
It has been exciting for me to see the evolution of the Commissioner's role and her use of the Queens University Belfast and University of Ulster academic reviews (on which I consulted). Professor John Williams (depicted on the far left, next to Claire Keatinge in yellow), head of the department of law and criminology at Aberystwyth University in Wales provided forceful support for the proposed legislation in Northern Ireland during his commentary at the launch, saying the status quo cannot be justified.
I'd like to say I see an easy path for a comprehensive Adult Safeguarding Law to emerge in the near future for Northern Ireland, thus serving as a role model for other jurisdictions facing similar issue.
I have to admit, however, that I was discouraged by what sounded -- at least to me -- like vacillation coming from key government leaders. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the Northern Ireland Executive, Edwin Poots (above, in the blue tie). spoke at the Commissioner's launch, expressing his own concern for older people as victims of abuse, especially financial abuse; however, I was disappointed when Minister Poots predicted that it would not be possible for Stormont to reach the issue of safeguarding legislation in the next 21 months. (Of course, coming from the political gridlock of Congress in the U.S., and as a witness to the snail's pace for protective legislation in my home state of Pennsylvania, I guess I should not be too surprised.)
Still, the good news is that the first major steps have been taken by Commissioner Keatinge and her capable staff including Catherine Hewitt and Emer Boyle, with strong support at the launch from social and health care professionals who have seen first hand the potential for subtle and not-so-subtle abuse of elder, disabled or frail adults in Northern Ireland.
And by the way, Professor Williams from Wales will be one of the presenters at the 2014 International Elder Law and Policy Conference at John Marshall Law in Chicago, speaking on older persons' access to justice as a key component of international human rights on Friday, July 11. It is a small world at times and one with a growing commitment to tackle key topics in ageing.