Office of the Public Guardian

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 19th July 2011.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 11:00 am, 19th July 2011

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am sure that you are aware of “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens in which many of the characters’ lives are ruined by the court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which never gets resolved. The case rumbles on for years and then for decades until no one can remember what it was all about in the first place. In the meantime, it provides a tidy living for lawyers and others, while an indifferent legal system looks on with complacency. Over the past three years, I have had the misfortune of having to take up a case on behalf of my constituent, whom, for the purpose of this debate, I shall call Mrs F. Our dealings with the Office of the Public Guardian have left me feeling that we are perhaps caught up in the same thick miasma, both literal and metaphorical, of Charles Dickens’s novel.

I do not have time to explore all the nooks and crannies of the case, but I fear that my constituent and I are not alone—I see that other hon. Members are present today—in being frustrated by the obfuscation, delay and lack of action by the Office of the Public Guardian in discharging its duties.

In this case, my constituent and her ex-husband are divorced. The only outstanding matter in relation to the divorce is a flat they jointly own in Spain. Sadly, Mr F suffers from dementia, which deteriorated after the couple’s separation, and is unable to attend to his own affairs. As a result, the court appointed one of his relatives as deputy to attend to his affairs.

I have the file of correspondence that I have accumulated in trying to assist my constituent since she came to see me in September 2008. As a constituency Member of Parliament yourself, Mr Dobbin, you will appreciate that the matter had been in train for some time before my constituent took the major step of approaching me as her Member of Parliament to assist. Mrs F was frustrated by the lack of effort from the Office of the Public Guardian in ensuring that the apartment was sold, given that buyers were available and that it was in the interest of both parties that the property should be sold. My constituent was paying all the service charges and taxes associated with the property and having little or no success in recovering the other half from the appointed deputy.

At that point, the Office of the Public Guardian told me that the Public Guardian was gathering evidence and would consider what further action would be necessary. That was nearly three years ago. In March 2009, I received a letter from Monica Ogle of the compliance and regulations department at the Office of the Public Guardian saying that my constituent’s complaint had been rejected. She blamed the Spanish authorities for the lack of progress and said that that those problems had now been resolved.

On 30 March 2009, I wrote again to the Office of the Public Guardian complaining about the deputy’s lack of oversight, the mounting cost to my constituent and the lack of response from the deputy’s solicitor to correspondence. I received a reply, dated 16 April 2009 which promised additional assistance to the deputy in selling the property. However, by July nothing seemed to have been done, so I wrote again to the Public Guardian. In his reply of 30 July 2009, he said that he would consider whether the deputy was best suited to act in this case, ensure that the deputy arranged for payment of service charges so as not to jeopardise ownership of the property concerned and work towards a “swift resolution” to the property sale. That was two years ago.

Three months later, in October 2009, my office spoke to a representative from the Office of the Public Guardian and was given an assurance that that representative would speak to all concerned about any outstanding matters preventing the sale of the property.

In January 2010, I again wrote to the Public Guardian and explained that no progress had been made. At this stage, with a general election approaching and in the forlorn hope that I might be able to conclude this case before my potential imminent demise at the ballot box, I took the step of writing to the then Minister, Bridget Prentice, asking her to intervene given that this case was causing such distress to my constituent.

On 12 February 2010, the Office of the Public Guardian replied, suggesting that the problem was the lack of a buyer. For the first time, it suggested that my constituent could, at her own expense, apply to the court to discharge the deputy. It did not indicate, however, that the Office of the Public Guardian could do that itself.