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Thursday, June 24, 2021

ACTCOSS welcomes elder abuse laws amid legal profession objections

The ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) has welcomed the ACT Government’s move to introduce specific offences for elder abuse, reforms that have drawn the ire of the ACT’s legal profession.

The bill, introduced into the Legislative Assembly yesterday, 7 May, will see individuals and institutions criminally liable for the abuse or exploitation of vulnerable members of the community.   

ACTCOSS CEO Emma Campbell welcomed provisions for vulnerable or older people to access the ACT Human Rights Commission processes in situations of abuse, neglect or exploitation.

“Many older Australians and people with disability may be unwilling to pursue criminal sanctions against perpetrators of abuse, particularly if the perpetrator is a family member,” Dr Campbell said.

“The opportunity for community members, or their advocates, who are experiencing abuse to use the ACT Human Rights Commission as a channel to resolve these issues is important.”

Dr Campbell urged the ACT Government to consider providing additional investment to community sector organisations and legal services that advocate on behalf of older Australians and people with disability, as these groups often have trouble accessing support and representation.

“Individuals do not always recognise that they are experiencing abuse or exploitation at the hands of family members or close friends, and institutional settings sometimes do not classify abusive behaviour as criminal when it should be,” she said.

ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay said he believed increased calls to Legal Aid ACT on this issue could be attributed both to an increase in elder abuse and increased community awareness.

“I believe there is an increased awareness of elder abuse these days, in the same way that previous years there’s been an increased awareness of child sexual abuse, and before that, domestic and family violence.

“At the same stage, we know that with circumstances at the moment, as people are more isolated, vulnerable people are more at risk. That’s why it was very important for us to introduce the legislation today (7 May),” he said.

The introduction of the legislation has been questioned by the ACT Law Society; president Chris Donohue raised concerns the reforms could duplicate offences that already apply in the ACT, and cause people to be reluctant to take on caring roles.

Mr Ramsay said the reforms address an ‘insufficient’ legal setting, and noted expanded powers for the Human Rights Commission to be able to investigate matters in a non-criminal setting.

“What we’ve also done is introduce the legislation around the protection of vulnerable people. That means that courts can take into consideration the vulnerability of a person for existing offences,” he said.

“We needed to have new measures, as well as increasing the sentencing capability of other measures as well.

“I have listened very carefully across the community on this one… What I hear over and over again is, ‘it’s about time’.”

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