ACT News


Demand for legal aid in cases of elder abuse exceeds expectations

Canberra's demand for advice in cases of elder abuse is outstripping Legal Aid ACT's expectations, its annual report has revealed.

Elder abuse can include forcing a parent into aged care to sell the house, threatening to withdraw care and banning contact with family if they refuse. It can also include physical abuse and neglect.

For Legal Aid, a public funding service for socially or economically disadvantaged Canberrans, "the matters coming to us are usually urgent, often involving guardianship applications," its report says.

The demand on Legal Aid ACT mirrors national trends, and there is an expectation that elder abuse will only become more prevalent as Australia's population ages.

In 2016, the Australian Law Reform Commission announced it would investigate the extent of the problem and possible responses. In a discussion paper released in December, the commission called for a national register of people holding power of attorney, to prevent children stealing from their elderly parents.

But even detecting elder abuse, as Legal Aid has noted, is difficult.


One response has been for it to search for pro-bono partnerships, as well as building better community engagement with the elderly.

It has also argued for reform in relaxation of the means test. It says that would allow more people access to the service - "particularly those that have substantial equity in a residence but, because of the abuse, limited capacity to exercise control over the asset".

As well as elder abuse, Legal Aid's 2015-16 annual report identified as emerging problems the number of Indigenous children being taken into care, providing services for victims of family violence and services for Indigenous and culturally diverse people.

Meanwhile, demand continues to grow amid what president Jon Stanhope called the "perennial" concern around limited funding. The service has called for more funding as financial pressures continue to "test" its ability to meet the needs of the Canberra community.

The service made 2,646 of grants of legal assistance in 2015/16, a growth of 22 per cent on the last financial year. The number of applications for those grants grew by 15 per cent.

"While innovation and using 'smart' strategies to better met demand are a necessary part of Commission business planning, in the medium to long term finding additional income streams will be necessary if services are not to be reduced," the report says.

"The significant turnaround in grants of legal assistance will also be under threat unless funds are found to support litigation. Up until this past year the trend in grant approvals had continued to decrease, and though we are back to 2003-04 levels it will be difficult to maintain these numbers."