One of the many surprises caused by its absence from the Queen’s Speech was any mention of the long-sought legislation on addressing the impact a missing loved one can have on families. Every year around 216,000 people go missing and around 2,000 are still missing after a year; sadly some are never found.
Although families may come to the realisation, often after years of hoping, that their loved one is probably dead, without a body it is very difficult to register that person’s death and obtain a death certificate. This can lead to years of delay in settling a person’s affairs such as dissolving marriages, dealing with mortgages, and administering estates. In cases where missing people are found, the intervening period can have devastated their bank accounts, homes can have been repossessed, and bills paid for years for services they never used.
Charities such as Missing People have been working for some time to bring forward legislation and had been hopeful that this year’s Queen’s Speech would be the turning point. Their work has been supported by a June 2011 enquiry by the All Party Group for Runaway and Missing Children which recommend that the Ministry of Justice provides a framework for consultation. The House of Commons Justice Select Committee then threw its weight behind the call in its report this February when they called on the Government to introduce a Presumption of Death Act modelled on the legislation in force in Scotland and Northern Ireland. They even went further and proposed a system of guardianship orders that would allow a person’s property to be administered in their best interests if they have been missing for three months or more. This is an excellent idea and could particularly help families where a loved one has goes missing but is found after a few months.
The legislation in Scotland has worked well and in the 34 years since it was enacted only one missing person is reported to have come forward, and of course that can’t be considered negative in any way. If we compare the situation in Scotland or Northern Ireland to England and Wales, however, we soon see just how difficult it is for families whose loved one has gone missing. Families can wait for seven years and then approach the courts, and I mean courts plural, because an order for one purpose does not cover all. Oddly one court could rule on a presumption of death whereas another court on the same evidence could deny such an order. All of this of course on top of the burden that the loss of a loved one brings with it. Under the Non-Contentious Probate Rules a family could move slightly more swiftly but this is not a presumption of death, it only allows a family to administer the missing person’s affairs and the round of court applications is still needed to deal with marriages etc.
it is more than disappointing that the Ministry of Justice has not brought forward any proposed legislation in this area and it has fallen to Baroness Kramer to bring forward a private Bill in the House of Lords. This is an unsatisfactory way for a government not exactly groaning under the weight of draft Bills to behave. The Labour Party will continue to press the current government to resolve this issue at the earliest opportunity.
Rob Flello is a Shadow Justice Minister