16 July 2023

Numerous flaws found with body overseeing finances of those unable to make their own decisions

| Claire Fenwicke
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The Auditor-General has found instances where the finances of protected persons were being managed without their continued input or consideration of their wishes. Photo: File.

The government body responsible for the finances of Canberra’s ‘protected persons’ has been slammed for lack of consultation with the people whose money it’s meant to be managing.

If a person is unable to manage their affairs due to accident, illness, age or disability – and they don’t have an enduring power of attorney – the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) can appoint a manager to look after all or part of their finances on their behalf.

This can include collecting income such as superannuation, pension benefits or dividends from shares, lodging medical benefit claims and paying bills, managing a person’s property portfolio, and lodging their tax return.

Someone who has been appointed a financial manager by ACAT is known as a ‘protected person’, and the Public Trustee and Guardian (PTG) is responsible either for managing their finances or examining their financial accounts as submitted by a private manager.

ACT Auditor-General Michael Harris recently undertook a review of the PTG’s financial management services, and identified a number of “shortcomings” across a range of governance, administrative and service delivery arrangements.

One area of considerable concern was around consultation with the protected person or their support persons.

Mr Harris found while it was “critical” that protected persons or their support persons were spoken with to understand their financial position and to hear their wishes, this consultation wasn’t being routinely undertaken, “undermining the efforts of the PTG to provide supported decision-making”.

“The PTG has effective processes for the identification of a protected person’s income, expenses, assets and liabilities, as well as any ongoing management issues, when it is first appointed as a financial manager,” the report noted.

“However, in a number of instances in the case files being reviewed there was no evidence of the protected person being consulted during this process.”

Similarly in a number of instances, a protected person wasn’t consulted in the development of their annual budget.

An annual itemised statement should be provided to a protected person or their guardian at the end of each financial year. This hasn’t been happening in every case.

“The statements provide an opportunity for the protected person or their guardian to identify and question any potential irregular transactions associated with their account,” the report stated.

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Private managers can be used to oversee a protected person’s finances. But the Auditor General found PTG was “ineffective” at examining those accounts.

The number of protected persons with private managers increased from 448 in June 2018 to 713 in June 2022.

However the number of accounts submitted by private managers decreased from 696 in 2017-18 to 471 in 2021-22.

Mr Harris also found PTG repeatedly failed to meet its goals for the number of accounts to be examined, falling short of targets by 17 per cent (2018-19) to 40 per cent (2021-22).

The number of examined accounts jumped up in 2021-21 after PTG adopted a “light touch” approach to reviews.

“In practice, the purpose of the review is to identify whether the financial position of a protected person, namely their assets or liabilities, has changed by a predetermined level of materiality,” the report stated.

“Such an approach provides limited assurance with respect to the appropriateness or otherwise of a protected person’s expenditure.”

Other issues identified included “poor” fraud control and risk management arrangements, no single register for complaints or feedback, and that some PTG policies were not reviewed or updated when required, including the conflicts of interest register.

Mr Harris made 17 recommendations to improve PTG’s operations.

The PTG is a statutory body under the Justice and Community Safety Directorate (JACS).

A JACS spokesperson said the 16-month audit process had provided chances to address “several issues” raised in the report, however it was still being evaluated given its size.

“The Public Trustee and Guardian remains dedicated to continuously improving our operations and delivering high-quality services to the community we serve,” the spokesperson said.

“We are committed to implementing necessary improvements based on the recommendations made.”

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In the ACT an enduring power of attorney is elected to not only make financial decisions if you are unable, but health and medical choices.

Baker Deane and Nutt partner Tanya Nadin said the conversation usually arose around wills.

“People think they only need it when they get old, but you never know what’s around the corner,” she said.

She encouraged people to investigate whether they had an enduring power of attorney.

Ms Nadin said nominating a family member or friend meant there could be a better understanding of your wishes, such as authorising for Christmas presents.

Original Article published by Claire Fenwicke on Riotact.

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