Closure for the families of the missing

WE HAVE all been shocked by the story of the three women, one of whom hails from these shores, who were held in captivity in London for 30 years.

It brings into focus the issue of missing persons at a time when I have introduced a bill in the Houses of the Oireachtas to help make life easier for families who are left behind when people go missing and are presumed dead.

As the law presently stands, if a person goes missing, and it is clear from all the evidence available that they have died, there is no legal procedure available to allow for their estate to be managed.

The loved ones of those missing are left in a legal limbo which may have significant financial consequences. Bank accounts of a family breadwinner may become inaccessible; it may be difficult to claim social welfare benefits, interest on any outstanding loans may increase, mortgage arrears may rise, and in some cases, the sale of a family home could be prevented.

A perusal of the website missingpersons.ie is a sobering reminder of the shockingly high number of Irish people who go missing. Missingpersons.ie estimates that approximately 6,000 people are reported missing in Ireland every year — an average of 16 per day.

Thankfully, more than 95% are located within a short period of time. However, for those who never come home, the impact on their families is devastating. Some 393 people who went missing between 2003 and 2011 have never been seen since.

People in fishing communities around the country are all too aware of the practical reality of dealing with ‘the affairs’ of people who are missing and presumed dead, but for whom the law still recognises as being alive. I published the Civil Law Missing Persons Bill 2013, following on from a report published by the Law Reform Commission earlier this year entitled Civil Law Aspects of Missing Persons. The report rightly highlights how there is no process by which those left behind may deal with the immediate practical and legal issues that may arise when a person goes missing. The bill I am proposing follows the principle that a declaration of presumed death would have the legal status of actual death when dealing with issues relating to property, succession, and relationship status.

This will help the loved ones of missing persons to get legal, financial, and emotional closure. It will enable loved ones to apply for a presumption of death certificate in respect of missing persons which will facilitate them to deal with the management of their estate.

Under the proposed legislation, a family could apply to the courts after 90 days to allow for the interim management of the missing person’s property. It is important to stress that any judgments would only be delivered after a rigorous exploration of the missing person’s circumstances and that of those applying for access to their property.

The presumption of death certificate would be issued where the circumstances of the disappeared indicates that death is virtually certain, and, when both circumstance and the length of the disappearance indicates that it is highly probable that the missing person has died and will not return.

The Civil Law Missing Persons Bill 2013 was discussed by Cabinet this week and the Government has agreed that it will proceed with the bill. It will become law within the lifetime of this Government and I believe that it will be a significant step forward for the families of missing persons.

This legislation will not take away the heartache that the disappearance of a loved one may cause, but it will help families to put their loved ones’ affairs in order, properly mourn them, and move forward with their lives.

* Senator Colm Burke is Fine Gael’s health spokesman in Seanad Éireann


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