The Law of the Missing

The Law of the Missing

Date
01 Apr 2016
This month marks a year since the Ministry of Justice announced new laws to allow ‘sufficiently interested’ persons authority to manage the affairs of a missing person.  A recent debate in Westminster demonstrated cross-party support for the new law but, as yet, no timetable has been set for the implementation.
When a person goes missing there are huge repercussions for the family and friends left behind. 
 
Where are they? Has anything happened to them? Why would they do this? Could I have done more?
The unanswered questions place a huge burden on loved ones. In addition to the emotional upheaval, there are legal and practical issues which need to be resolved at a time when sitting down and raking through paperwork is almost inconceivable. Many people are placed in the terrible position of having to explain to banks, mortgage providers, utility companies and the like that their loved one has gone missing only to find that, whilst the institution may have huge sympathy for them, legally-speaking, their hands are tied and the finances and affairs of the missing person enter a strange period of limbo. Family and friends are faced with watching their loved one’s life unravelling in their absence, with direct debit payments continuing for unused mobile phones, houses standing empty, possessions gathering dust and are powerless to stop it. 
 
The current law, the Presumption of Death Act, allows the High Court to grant a Certificate of Presumed Death but the burden of proof on an applicant to prove that their missing loved one is likely to be dead is high. The missing person must have been missing for in excess of 7 years, or for less than 7 years if there are extenuating circumstance, such as if they went missing during a natural disaster or inside a burning building. 
 
Various bodies, in particular the charity Missing People, have recognised the intolerable strain that the current law places on those left behind and have lobbied tirelessly for the introduction of new laws to allow a relative to step in when a person goes missing. 
 
Under the proposed new laws a relative, or a person with ‘a sufficient interest’ in the missing person’s Estate, will be able to apply to be appointed as the missing person’s Guardian. They will have the power to manage the finances and affairs of the missing person, with a view to safeguarding the life that they hope their loved one will soon return to. 
 
Peter Lawrence, the father of missing York chef Claudia Lawrence, welcomed the announcement in 2015 by the MoJ and said: “I am pleased that the government supports the role of guardian and will now start to prepare legislation to introduce it. I trust that the next Parliament will prioritise this new legislation so that families who have been waiting for so long for this new law will be able to look after their missing loved one’s financial and practical affairs.
 
Here at Hartlaw we hope that the government will take notice of Mr Lawrence’s words, and those of the families and friends of the hundreds of missing people across the UK, and move to enact these new laws to give vital assistance to people facing an uncertain future without their loved one.
 
Rachel Saunders
Assistant Solicitor
Private Client Department