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New help planned for families of missing people

The families of missing people would be given extra help to manage a loved one’s affairs under government proposals.

The measures, now subject to consultation, would create a new power allowing relatives of missing people to take care of their legal and financial affairs following a disappearance – for example, being able to suspend direct debits for mobile phone and utility bills or to make mortgage payments.

The move follows the introduction of certificates of presumed death, which can be applied for by relatives from 1 October 2014. The equivalent of a death certificate, these will enable families to resolve a loved one’s affairs when they have gone missing and are presumed dead, seven years after they disappeared.

The proposed measures would allow relatives to look after a missing person’s estate during the time before they can apply for a certificate of presumed death.

Official figures suggest that around 280,000 people in England and Wales and around 33,000 in Scotland go missing each year, although the vast majority return or are found very quickly.

Launching the consultation, Justice Minister Lord Faulks QC said: “The sudden disappearance of a loved one, perhaps without any obvious explanation, is a traumatic event for even the most resilient.

“The emotional and personal problems caused by absences of several months or even years are all too obvious, but they can be compounded by the practical consequences of the disappearance.”

The Ministry of Justice consultation, which will run until 18 November, is seeking views on whether a system should be created under which a person can be appointed as a guardian to deal with the property and affairs of a missing person and, if so, how and on what terms.

Proposals set out in the consultation include:

  • that the appointment will be made by the court on application by an interested person after an absence of at least 90 days
  • the appointment will give the guardian the authority to act for the missing person in relation to his or her property and affairs, subject to any limits imposed by the court
  • the guardian will have to act in the best interests of the missing person
  • the appointment will be for a period of up to four years with the possibility of extension for a further four
  • the guardian will be required to account for his or her actions to a supervisory body.