woman sitting alone on sofa, distressed by financial abuse

In light of the new documentary being launched on Netflix this evening, we look at how the law approaches financial abuse and coercive control.

Lawyers have welcomed the new Netflix documentary The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman (released on 18th January 2022) as a much needed spotlight on the issues of financial abuse and coercive control which are on the increase.

Who is the Puppet Master?

The “Puppet Master” in question is Robert Hendy-Freegard, a conman who was convicted in 2005 of two counts of kidnapping, ten of theft and eight of deception after creating an elaborate web of lies and deception which left his victims isolated, traumatised and destitute.

He subsequently made a successful appeal against the kidnapping convictions and had his life sentence reduced and he was released from prison in 2009. However, this is not the end of the story. There are now new allegations that Hendy-Freegard has not changed and in an interview in The Times, Sophie and Jake Clifton talk about their mother Sandra who is now in a relationship with Hendy-Freegard. Sandra has slowly stopped having any relationship at all with her children and wider family and Sophie and Jake’s search for her is the basis of the documentary.

How the law views coercive control and financial abuse

The difficulty in this area is that both coercive control and financial abuse can be difficult to address initially, as they usually start at a very low level and it takes time for the full extent of the problem to become apparent. Victims often don’t fully recognise how bad things have become until they are out of the situation.

After sustained campaigning by domestic violence charities, coercive control is now a crime under s76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 and the forthcoming Domestic Abuse Act 2021 will also provide more protection for victims if passed later this year.

The offence of coercive control does have some limitations though. In order to be guilty of coercive control the accused must be in an intimate personal relationship with their victim or live with their victim and be either family members or people who were in an intimate relationship with each other.

Coercive control will often be financial abuse, but financial abuse may not necessarily be coercive control.

Power of Attorney and financial abuse

Lawyers working with vulnerable adults and the elderly are seeing an increase in cases where financial abuse is alleged, in particular in relation to Attorneys acting under a Lasting Power of Attorney.

The rules around what Attorneys may or may not do are very strict. In particular, Attorneys must act in the best interests of the person who appointed them (the ‘Donor’) and must not make gifts to themselves or to others, except in very limited circumstances. Attorneys cannot arrange the financial affairs of the Donor to benefit themselves and this includes undertaking transactions which have saving inheritance tax as their purpose but which are not of benefit to the Donor.

However, it is not just Attorneys who may be involved with financial abuse; family members, carers, friends and advisors can all be in positions of the utmost trust and it is an unfortunate truth that not everyone is trustworthy.

What to do if you or someone you know needs help

If you or someone you know is in a relationship where coercive control is an issue, help is available from a wide range of networks.

Whether you just want to talk about what is happening or you want advice on how to leave, you can talk to a healthcare professional such as a nurse, GP or Pharmacist – all of which will be able to offer support and advice.

You can also contact Women’s Aid or Refuge if you are female, and men can contact the Men’s Advice Line. Galop is also available to support LGBTQIA+ people who have experienced abuse and violence.

If you suspect someone is being financially abused, here are some options:

  • For Attorneys, you should report your concerns and supporting evidence to the Office of the Public Guardian (‘OPG’) who have the power to investigate and to remove Attorneys who are not acting in the Donor’s best interests.
  • The OPG does not have the power to punish the wrongdoer but they are able to report any fraud or theft to the police to investigate. It is worth also noting that s4 Fraud Act 2006 creates the specific offence of ‘Fraud by abuse of position’.
  • Where the OPG is not involved and you are concerned that someone is being financially abused, you can report your concerns to the police directly or report a safeguarding concern to the local Adult Safeguarding Team within Social Services and they will be able to investigate and get involved if a vulnerable adult is at risk.
  • If the financial abuse only becomes apparent after the abused has died, their estate could pursue a civil claim against the abuser to seek to recover some or all of the money that has been unlawfully taken.

If you have concerns about your situation or the financial abuse of someone you know and you would like expert advice, please contact our Dispute Resolution team to set up an appointment to get the help and advice you need.