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Missing Persons: A Campaign for Change

Missing Persons: A Campaign for Change

To lose a loved one is devastating and upsetting to begin with, but in the case of Vicki Derrick who has spent the last eight years not knowing what happened to her husband, her agony has been exacerbated due to the ‘convoluted and cumbersome’ law surrounding missing people.

Vinny Derrick was on a work night out on August 30 2003 in Manchester City Centre. After leaving Jabez Clegg nightclub, he rang his boss from a taxi, with whom he had arranged to stay with that night, saying he was on his way to their house. Vinny never appeared, and was never heard from again.

Due to the current position of the law, Mrs Derrick was unable to use Vinny’s life insurance to pay the increasing bills.

Vinny’s wife received news this week which has brought both relief and upset, bones belonging to Vinny found under the M60 in Stockport bringing eight years of ambiguity to a close.

Since the disappearance of her husband, Vicki Derrick had been campaigning for reform in the law surrounding missing people. On the night Vinny went missing, Vicki was left to bring up their child alone, and survive as a single parent. The joint mortgage, between her and her husband, needed to be paid, but due to the current position of the law, Mrs Derrick was unable to use Vinny’s life insurance to pay the increasing bills.

Currently, there are several options available to those left behind, but information about them is limited and confusing. There is no one agency to provide answers or information for those seeking it in missing persons cases. It has been commented by those individuals giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee, that even when a solicitor is approached it is quite often an area of law they are unfamiliar with and therefore, cannot give clear advice on the matter.

The first option available is to rely upon section 15 of the Coroners Act 1988, which provides for a coroner to report to the Secretary of State that they have reason to believe that a violent, unnatural or sudden death has occurred in their area, but the body is irrecoverable or has been destroyed. If there is no identifiable body, a death certificate can then be issued. If the Secretary of State is minded that there is sufficient evidence they will direct that an inquest occurs resulting in the issuing of a death certificate.

Alternatively, an individual can apply for leave to swear the death of their loved one. This is made by virtue of Rule 53 of the Non Contentious Probate Rules which again involves court attendance and can be a prolonged and costly experience. It also only allows for the division of the missing person’s estate, it is not conclusive proof of death, and is therefore not always accepted by banking institutions, for example.

It seems illogical that, after such a considerable amount of time, Vicki Derrick has had to worry about how she would keep her family financially afloat. Vicki, alongside others facing similar circumstances, and the charity Missing People, gave evidence last November to the Justice Select Committee, although their decision on the suggested changes was expected in April, proposals were released last week.

The committee headed by Sir Alan Beith, has suggested three reforms to the current law aligning England and Wales to the situation as it stands in Ireland and Scotland.

Their first suggestion is the introduction of a Presumption of Death Act in England and Wales. A Presumption of Death Certificate would be available seven years after an individual has been reported missing. This has long been available in Scotland and is generally considered have had a positive affect in circumstances where a person has gone missing.

A Presumption of Death Certificate would be available seven years after an individual has been reported missing.

It could be argued that seven years is still a long time for the family to cope without a Presumption of Death Certificate, but in this author’s opinion, a fine balance needs to be struck between ensuring the needs of both the family and the missing individual, should they later reappear.

The introduction of Guardianship orders, modelled on the Australian approach, would alleviate some of the ongoing financial burden felt by the family after disappearance. This would allow for their loved ones to manage their financial affairs.

Finally, the committee has proposed there be greater information and guidance made readily available to families faced with this situation. They hope families will be kept better informed of their legal position.

The suggestions have been readily welcomed by the chief executive of  Missing People, Martin Houghton Brown who has commented:

It is now time for the Ministry of Justice to step forward and end this suffering once and for all with a commitment to a bill in the coming Queen’s speech.

Mr Houghton Brown’s sentiments are echoed by Ann Coffey MP, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults she said:

No family should have to go through such an emotionally exhausting and confusing legal process in addition to having to cope with the loss of a loved one. I urge the Government to act quickly on these recommendations.

Some concerns have been raised by insurers that changes will allow fraudulent claims to be brought more easily. This has been dismissed as an unrealistic outcome. Where similar laws have been introduced such as Scotland, there are ultimately more distraught and bereaved families seeking recourse, than fraudulent insurance claims.

It remains to be seen how readily these suggestions will be adopted by Parliament, Justice Minister Jonathan Djangoly has made no promises that a change will come, but these recommendations would be hard to justifiably ignore.

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