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New legislation proposed to safeguard at-risk adults

New legislation and additional criminal offences have been proposed to prevent people from harming or taking advantage of vulnerable or at-risk adults.

The proposals are contained in a major new report published by the Law Reform Commission (LRC), setting out a regulatory framework for adult safeguarding.

It contains multiple recommendations to protect adults who need support from emotional, physical and financial harm.

The Commission says incidents over the last two decades have shown that statutory bodies have limited ability to intervene where an at-risk adult is in danger of abuse or neglect.

It says there are “significant gaps” in the current legislation. It proposes new adult safeguarding legislation and sets out proposals for new criminal offences.

The LRC recommends expanding existing legislation and regulations to impose obligations on financial providers to prevent and address financial abuse of at-risk adults. This would include regular awareness training for staff in banks, credit unions and post offices.

It proposes four new criminal offences including a proposal to criminalise coercive behaviour such as “cuckooing” – where a person befriends an at-risk person and takes over their home to conduct illegal activities or engage in anti-social behaviour.

It says this “coercive exploitation” is currently not a crime in Ireland although offences of theft, fraud and deception may be relevant depending on the circumstances.

The other proposed offences include the intentional or reckless abuse of a relevant person, exposure of an at-risk person to a risk of serious harm or sexual abuse and coercive control of an at-risk person.

It says there are specific offences criminalising child cruelty and endangerment of children but there are no equivalent offences applying to at risk adults who may have difficulty protecting themselves from harm.

‘Unquestionably reprehensible’

The abuse, neglect, ill treatment or exposure to harm of an at-risk adult is “unquestionably reprehensible” and should be criminalised, the LRC says.

The Commission also says there is a significant adult safeguarding risk due to the absence of minimum standards of training for health care assistants or healthcare support assistants.

It recommends the regulation of those working in caring and support work. It says, there is currently little to prevent someone in an unregulated occupational group about whom abuse or neglect concerns have been raised, from moving to another job and continuing to commit abuse or harm.

The Commission recommends that providers of services such as nursing homes, residential and day services for people with disabilities, accommodation for those who are homeless or seeking international protection and substance misuse centres should have safeguarding duties imposed on them.

This would oblige them to manage their services to prevent harm to at-risk adults, carry out a risk assessment and prepare an adult safeguarding statement.

It says a Safeguarding Body should be set up to promote the health, safety and welfare of at-risk adults. It proposes that this body should have statutory powers to enter facilities to assess the welfare of at-risk adults and should, as a last resort, be able to obtain court orders to remove at-risk adults from where they are and take them to a safe place.

The LRC recommends that people working in certain occupations should have a duty to report harm and there should be protection for those who report harm of at-risk adults in good faith.

The Commission also recommends expanding domestic violence legislation to allow domestic abuse against at-risk adults to be addressed appropriately.

It says its recommendations are designed to recognise domestic abuse within the adult safeguarding context and provide ways to provide protection in situations that do not fit within existing definitions of domestic abuse.

It says at-risk adults in all care settings should have access to independent advocacy services.

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