Make reporting of elder abuse mandatory?

Earlier this week, a video of an alleged assault of an elderly woman outside her own home attracted intense public interest and prompted immediate action by the authorities.

Regrettably, it appeared that several neighbours had witnessed a sustained pattern of previous assaults on the elderly woman but no one took action until one of them decided to film a video of the incident and posted it on Facebook.

This incident highlights the issue of whether the law provides sufficient redress for victims of elder abuse. If not, can and should more be done?

Elder abuse can take many forms, not all of which is addressed by the law. The criminal law offers some protection to victims of elder abuse. For instance, certain acts of physical or financial abuse may be offences under the Penal Code. In this incident, the police classified the case as voluntarily causing hurt, which is a criminal offence under the Penal Code.

Psychological abuse may also be caught under the Protection from Harassment Act.

A more realistic starting point may be to impose, as in Wisconsin in the United States, mandatory reporting obligations on healthcare and other professionals who come into contact with the elderly in the course of their work.

For these forms of elder abuse, victims are likely to have recourse to civil remedies as well. But beyond such harm, the present law does not address more subtle forms of elder abuse such as abandonment or neglect.

The proposed Vulnerable Adults Act, which is expected to be tabled in Parliament later this year, will go some way to fill the lacuna. Although details of this new law are still sketchy, it will address less tangible forms of elder abuse, such as self-neglect cases where the elderly are unable to care for themselves.

One difficult issue, though, is whether the Vulnerable Adults Act should impose mandatory elder abuse reporting. Such mandatory reporting laws are prevalent in America, but different approaches have been taken as to who is required to report, which types of elder abuse must be reported and the sanctions for failing to report. The challenge in drawing up such laws is in deciding where to strike the right balance between protection from abuse and intrusion into personal affairs.

As this incident illustrates, a broad reporting law that imposes an obligation on anyone who has reasonable grounds to believe that an elderly person has been neglected or abused may help to address the issue of under-reporting of suspected elder abuse cases.

However, such a law may be difficult to implement. For example, it is not always easy for an outsider to determine when elder abuse occurs.

In most cases, clear physical abuse of an elderly person would be supported by medical evidence. But in cases of psychological or financial abuse, an outsider would need to be fairly involved in the elderly person's affairs in order to have a reasonable basis to believe that such abuse had occurred.

Attaching sanctions for non- reporting will therefore be onerous if the reporting law covers all forms of elder abuse.

Moreover, the force of law may not necessarily lead to more reports of elder abuse. Neighbours witnessing elder abuse may leave it to one another to take the first step to make the report, a phenomenon popularly known as the bystander effect. The cultural deference towards non- interference in other people's family affairs is also difficult to overcome.

If a wide mandatory reporting law is socially desirable, it should be tailored to specific types of elder abuse which outsiders can reasonably detect. Such a law should also be accompanied by stepping up public education on elder abuse.

Alternatively, a more realistic starting point may be to impose, as in Wisconsin in the United States, mandatory reporting obligations on healthcare and other professionals who come into contact with the elderly in the course of their work.

Although the jury is still out on the effectiveness of mandatory reporting laws, Singapore should begin a serious discussion on this issue which affects us all.

  • The writer is managing partner, RHTLaw TaylorWessing LLP
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline 'Make reporting of elder abuse mandatory?'. Print Edition | Subscribe