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Public Trustee is not so trusted

Tasmania’s Public Trustee and the state’s wider guardianship system fulfil an important role in helping many vulnerable Tasmanians manage their affairs.

As such, the Public Trustee should be a safe and trusted institution.

But it has become increasingly clear that this is not the case, with growing community concerns from many individuals and families about their negative experiences in the system.

In recent months, there have been increasingly worrying reports to MPs’ offices, to community organisations and in the media, with people sharing their heartbreaking stories of their own experiences in the guardianship system, as well as the treatment of their loved ones.

These stories involve people who are still living, as well as people who have passed away and whose estate is being administered through the guardianship system.

Among some of the key issues raised are a lack of information and support to people in hospital and other health facilities who are placed under emergency orders, a lack of communication to clients and their families about how their affairs are being managed, about the fees and charges being applied to them, about the decisions being made on their behalf, as well as a lack of information to clients about their own rights.

These are serious issues, which have caused enormous confusion and anxiety for those directly affected and their families.

Along with complaints Labor has received, Advocacy Tasmania also reports receiving distressed calls from people about emergency orders placed on them by people working in the hospital system.

Many elderly Tasmanians are worried that if their health deteriorates and they access public health services or hospitals, they may be slapped with an emergency order and lose control of their own affairs.

The media coverage of Michael Burles’ case is a prime example. Mr Burles had been successfully managing his own affairs until he went to hospital for some treatment. He was placed under an emergency order while in hospital and then, without his knowledge or consent, all of his belongings were either sold or taken to the tip. He was presented with a cheque for $1,000 and moved permanently into aged care. This was directly against his wishes.

Another media report detailed the circumstances of Frank Webb, who had invested $5,000 with the Public Trustee, received a return of only $200, but was unable to find out why the return was so little. He believes it was due to Trustee fees for maintaining the investment, but again with such little information being shared with clients, he has no way to find out the truth.

And yet another person shared with a Labor Party representative that, of the $14,000 her husband had left her in his will, she received only $2,000, with no explanation as to what happened to the rest of the money.

These experiences have caused great anguish and distress to the individuals concerned but also reflect a broader need for systemic change in Tasmania’s guardianship system.

Labor is pleased that a review is underway into the Public Trustee, although it is well overdue and the submission period very short.

But, there is action that can and should be taken now. The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute completed its review of the state’s Guardianship Act three years ago, and recommended sweeping reforms to ensure people with a disability can make their own choices.

Along with fully implementing those recommendations, Labor urges the government to consult meaningfully with advocacy groups and community organisations to provide systemic change.

Elderly Tasmanians and those living with a disability or mental illness deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and they need a system that is client focussed and rights based.

Ella Haddad is the Shadow Attorney General and Shadow Minister for Justice

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