An online switch for lasting powers of attorney could be a digital step too far.
The government is showing tenacity, ambition and vision with its plans to ‘go digital’. The aim is simple – to make government services and transactions easier, faster, cheaper and more efficient.
For many, it is refreshing and necessary, not only benefitting individuals but businesses too. Tasks such as renewing vehicle tax now take a few minutes online.
Why not make legal services as easy?
Cabinet minister Francis Maude, who is leading the digital push, says the government could save between £1.7bn and £1.8bn each year. Transactions online can already be 20 times cheaper than by phone, 30 times cheaper than by post and as much as 50 times cheaper than face to face, he says.
As part of its contribution to the project, the Ministry of Justice wants to create an all-digital service for granting lasting power of attorney (LPA) – the legal process of appointing someone to make decisions on your behalf about health, welfare, property and financial affairs.
This could be a digital step too far. It is overambitious and, ironically, may lead confused or worried clients to pursue traditional face-to-face meetings with their legal adviser rather than pursue the ‘50 times cheaper’ alternative.
The trial system, where most of the process is done online, has been under way since 1 July last year. We are yet to hear how successful it has been or what lessons have been learned. What we do know is that the government wants to fully implement changes by April.
My concern is that members of the public are the guinea pigs in this experiment, and that the elderly and vulnerable could pay the price.
Digital technology has not yet reached all areas of our society. The government’s own research states that 18% of UK people are ‘offline’, in that they never or rarely use the internet. This figure rises to 30% for people aged 55 to 64, and 40% for those aged 65 and above.
Of course, the government prefers to use the counter statistic that 82% of UK people are online – a far more persuasive but arguably misleading figure. Dig a bit deeper and this figure looks less robust.
The government’s survey into internet use (Digital Efficiency Report, November 2012) – upon which the digital strategy is partly based – found that many older people disliked the internet or were reluctant ‘users’ because it ‘discourages human connection’. That single piece of evidence should ring alarm bells for the MoJ.
At Kirwans, we find that many clients appreciate the option of talking face to face, especially about sensitive and personal matters such as LPAs. The advantages of the personal touch can far outweigh speed and cost, even for relatively tech-savvy people.
Fraud is always a concern when power or influence over a person’s financial matters is at stake.
The Office of the Public Guardian is responsible for supporting and protecting the interests of people who may lack mental capacity now or in the future. It has stated that ‘safeguarding and security will be at the heart of any fully digital LPA process’, but there are few details at this stage about exactly what steps will be taken to thwart fraudsters.
Having a professional legal representative to guide you through the LPA process – providing the reassurance that you have completed the process correctly and, most importantly, with the proper advice and information at your disposal – significantly reduces the risk of fraud.
A six-week consultation ended in November and hopefully many concerns will be addressed. After all, Mr Maude has said ‘we will not leave anyone behind’.
I would argue for legal services such as LPAs to be a special case that requires more careful consideration. Ultimately, a human alternative for those who require it should be offered alongside a digital option to ensure people get what they seek – peace of mind.
John-Paul Dennis is a partner and head of private client at Kirwans