Court of Protection (Amendment) Rules 2002 and The Court of Protection (Enduring Powers of Attorney) (Amendment) Rules 2002

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Mr. Burnett: As I suggested earlier, and as the Parliamentary Secretary rightly said, there is a reduction in the fee for the receivership application from £230 to £65, but the new first year case set-up fee is £500. That effectively represents a substantial increase.

Ms Winterton: Yes, it is an increase, but I shall deal later with what the first-year commencement fee covers. Given that we intend to adhere to the principle of recovering costs wherever possible, while catering for the least well-off clients, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the charge is not unreasonable.

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The court issues a short order where the client's assets are such that full receivership is not required. The applicant is then authorised to deal with the assets without further reference to the court, although it has the right to call that person to account where necessary. Such an order is a way of saying that people in cases where the assets are less than £16,000 should be allowed, as far as possible, to get on with overcoming the problems that have been highlighted. This is a clear example of how we have said that the most vulnerable clients can be protected under the new fees strategy.

The officers of the court of protection and the PGO have also developed new guidelines for the remission of fees, which are more generous and more wide-ranging than in the past, and which will be more widely publicised. In arriving at the remission of fees strategy, they consulted widely with organisations such as Age Concern, the Alzheimer's Society, Action on Elder Abuse, Mind and the Law Society, and the strategy reflects their views. To take one example of how it will work, the guidelines will increase the capital limit for the remission of fees from £3,000 to £11,750, which is an increase of almost 300 per cent.

It would be helpful for hon. Members to know about two other aspects of the remissions scheme. Mention has been made of the increase in EPA registration fees, and I shall explain later what they cover and why we settled on them. Under the revised remissions guidelines, clients with assets of less than £16,000 will be treated in the same way as short order protection clients, and will pay a registration fee of only £65.

The hon. Members for Torridge and West Devon and for Stone (Mr. Cash) asked what the full EPA registration fee covered. It covers the cost of registration, handling disputes and technical problems, correspondence during and after registration, helping and advising attorneys or their legal representatives, investigating allegations of financial abuse against the donor, and cancelling registration on the death of the donor. The registration fee covers that work over the life of a case, and does not simply cover the act of registering a document.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon mentioned adding solicitors fees to the registration fee, but most people do not need to use a solicitor to register an EPA. We want to ensure that the Public Guardianship Office is in a position to explain the process properly and that the forms are as straightforward and as easy to complete as possible so that it is unnecessary for people to use solicitors' services.

Both the hon. Members for Torridge and West Devon and for Stone have asked how the figure has been arrived at, compared with the earlier figure. Part of the enduring power of attorney registration fee is used to cover the resolution of disputes that may arise. That is obviously time-consuming and costly in court time. Of nearly 800 cases a year, 50 per cent. may result in a court hearing. The average cost of dealing with those disputes is £1,262. Some have suggested that there should be a low fee for registration, but a

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charge if the matter needs to be taken to court. We have rejected that suggestion because we feel that that would deter people who, for various reasons, wish to challenge the enduring power of attorney. It would be unfair to take that out of the equation because the money comes from people's savings. We are able to do that within the cross-subsidy rules. Thus, in a sense, the enduring power of attorney fee allows people to make challenges if necessary. It is a sort of insurance and means that people are not deterred from bringing a challenge.

There have been concerns that the fee might deter people from registering. However, there were 2,537 applications to register an enduring power of attorney in April and May this year, and for the equivalent period last year, there were 2,089 applications. The publicity surrounding the new fees and, in particular, our work with organisations to publicise the remissions guidelines have drawn people's attention to the benefit of enduring power of attorney registration. We feel that that is a positive move in the right direction. It is crucial that we get the publication of those extremely important guidelines right—that is already evident. In the previous financial year, which finished in March 2002, an average of 15 commencement fees per month was remitted for receivership cases. However, in May 2002, since the introduction of the new fees and the publication of the remission guidelines, 95 commencement fees have been remitted, which is almost half the total number of remissions made last year. The figures for June are not much different. Through the efforts that have been made to publicise the guidelines, we have been able to give much greater protection to the poorest clients.

I hope it reassures hon. Members to know that the PGO will retain the discretion to remit fees for clients who do not meet the criteria, if it judges that they would suffer financial hardship as a result. We are keen to maintain that discretion because it is not the intention of the court to limit its ability to determine cases of hardship in relation to clients who fall outside the guidelines. For example, one individual returned to this country after living in Australia for some time, where he had been involved in an accident and awarded compensation. The compensation had the effect of taking his total capital beyond the level set out in the guidelines, but his award was subject to a matrimonial claim in Australia, which meant that he had limited access to those funds until the matter was resolved. In those circumstances, it would be right for the court to postpone payment of his fees until the funds could be accessed, although it would also have discretion not to collect the fees at all. We are keen to ensure that that discretion is maintained. We intend to consider a new format for publicising it, giving examples of how hardship will be judged, so that people know that they can ask for remission of fees in certain circumstances.

I want to give one more example of how the new fees scheme will protect the poorest clients. We have now devolved the PGO's in-house receivership work to panel receivers, a matter that was raised by the hon.

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Members for Torridge and West Devon and for Stone. We felt that that was important because, in many instances, it will be in the client's best interests to have their case dealt with by someone locally.

Both hon. Members asked how receivers are appointed to the panel. Adverts are placed and individuals are invited to apply, but they have to act within the framework of a service level agreement. Issues have also been raised in connection with the amount of money charged by panel receivers. The PGO enters a service level agreement with every panel receiver, which states that, for solicitors in private practice, payment may be made either through fixed costs, as agreed annually with the Law Society, or by filing a bill for assessment by the Supreme Court costs office. Solicitors usually charge fixed costs of £900. Panel receivers do not usually deal with the very difficult cases of last resort, which the PGO tends to retain.

Mr. Burnett: Will the Minister confirm that, to be appointed to the panel, one must be a solicitor in private practice, with the insurance to back that up? If that is not the case, will she say what the qualifications are for getting on the panel and say what the insurance ramifications are? What satisfaction does one have to give, how long does one stay on the panel and how is one monitored while one is on it?

Ms Winterton: The vast majority are solicitors, but there is also a small number of accountants and a charitable organisation. I believe that there is also a former local authority employee. The panel receivers are supervised, and the Court of Protection works closely with them to ensure that charges made to clients by different panel receivers are consistent and fair. We shall take steps to ensure that that consistency continues. Some of that can be achieved through the service level agreement.

I understand the concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members about the PGO's service performance, and hope to be able to give them welcome news about the improvements that have taken place, at the same time as assuring them of our commitment to continual improvement. Since the launch some 15 months ago, there has been a major programme of change, designed to address the criticisms that have been made.

Clients and their receivers now receive many more visits than they did previously. Last year, over 6,000 visits were made, including visits to new clients and to all clients for whom the PGO was the receiver. The number of visits to clients whose affairs are being managed by private receivers is more than double that carried out just two years ago. In order to increase the number of visits, the PGO has recruited more visitors. Almost all of the new recruits have a social work or medical background. The PGO has also developed measures to monitor the visits in order to ensure that they fulfil their purpose and that issues that arise are addressed quickly.

The collection of outstanding receivers' accounts was, perhaps, of the greatest concern to the Public Accounts Committee. At the time of the Public Accounts Committee hearing, receivership accounts

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were overdue in some 6,350 cases. A process has been put in place to ensure that receivers account on time. There are now only 975 cases in which an account is overdue by two months or more. The key performance measure for accounts collection since 1 April 2001 has been to collect 50 per cent. of accounts within two months, 75 per cent. within 4 months and 100 per cent. within six months. The two and four month targets were more than achieved and the 100 per cent. target was met.

At the time of the hearing there were also some 3,650 accounts awaiting review. That figure has been reduced to 803, about half of which are cases in which, although the accounts have been rendered, further information is needed from the receiver. The key performance measure for 2002–3 will be to review 100 per cent. of accounts within five weeks of receipt. There have been criticisms, but the PGO is meeting, and in some cases exceeding, those service delivery targets. Communication with clients and receivers has been improved by producing better information and devising simpler and clearer forms. As I said, the PGO has also set up a support network of experienced receivers to help and advise those who are new to the task.

We are all aware that problems remain to be tackled. There has been a major reorganisation involving the PGO moving its offices up to Archway, which will pay dividends in the long term. It has led to arrears of work and a disruption to the service, which in turn has led to an increase in the number of complaints, but I hope that hon. Members will be reassured that the staff are extremely committed to providing a good service. They feel that we are trying to establish systems that will improve their ways of working, and we are involving them in the decisions on how that work can be improved. The people who work in the PGO and deal with the vulnerable clients do not want to provide a bad service, but we must set up proper management systems and team working to ensure that they can deliver.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon mentioned particular problems in which cases dealt with by one person changed to using a team working approach. There were problems in the past with the one-to-one approach when difficulties arose between a receiver and a particular individual.

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Prepared 27 June 2002