Baroness Sally Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat peer and member of Missing People's Policy and Research Advisory group
"The sudden disappearance of a loved one, perhaps without any obvious explanation as to the cause of the disappearance or any certain knowledge as to whether the missing person is alive, is a traumatic event for even the most resilient individual, particularly when the disappearance lasts for several months or even years. The emotional and personal problems caused by absences of this length are all too obvious, but they can be compounded by the practical consequences of the disappearance.”
Not my words, but those of the Minister of State for Justice, introducing a Government consultation on guardianship of the property and affairs of missing people.
I first became aware of the problem when I heard it described by the father of a missing woman who had found he was unable to protect her finances. He was a solicitor, and I thought: If he can’t find his way through this, who can? The answer is in effect: No-one.
The charity Missing People which, with their pro bono lawyers Clifford Chance, worked with the Ministry of Justice to develop the consultation paper, reports numerous distressing and intractable experiences. With no legal system for managing a missing person's affairs, they can fall into disarray with disconcerting speed. Salaries may stop being paid into a bank account, but direct debits, mortgage payments and rent will continue to be paid out – until the funds run out. However sympathetic a bank may be, it needs the signature of its account holder to change arrangements. Some may even regard themselves as unable to provide information.
Once you grasp the legal position, you can begin to see the practical impact. You can’t use the missing person’s money to pay his rent and other bills. You can’t sell a house which is in your and your missing husband’s joint names, but because your family’s circumstances have changed neither can you afford the mortgage.
And once you see the practical impact, you begin to get some idea of the emotional effect. A wife explained that she went overnight “from being a couple and having two wages to … becoming a single mum who could only work part time, with a mortgage and bills to pay…. my husband was missing, and that in itself was traumatic enough, but there was still the everyday living to do as well.” A mother put it, “I know it sounds so petty in the great scheme of what’s happened, but I didn’t want my son’s account to go overdrawn. It mattered so much to me.”
Guardianship would enable the families of missing people to manage their property and affairs. It would be welcome to financial institutions; they need legal certainty. It would be a minimal cost to the public purse. It could benefit thousands of families.
The Government’s consultation closed in November 2014, and there were indications that a bill was in the offing. But as none has been published, on 14 June I will be introducing a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Lords. I hope very much that it will quickly be overtaken by Government legislation. The least we can do is to help with “the everyday living”.