Elderly people can be vulnerable in regards to contracts
and financial transactions. Rosie Manins finds out how
problems can be prevented, and what protection is available
if they arise.
Elderly people should always consult someone before signing
anything or undertaking significant transactions, Age Concern
Social worker Marie Bennett, of Dunedin, said unfortunately
there were people in the community who would take advantage
of the elderly if given the opportunity.
She said a good rule of thumb for those who may be vulnerable
was to always seek a second opinion from a relative, friend
or trusted independent party.
''Please consult somebody, especially before you sign
anything. Don't do anything without consulting either family,
friends, Age Concern or the Citizens Advice Bureau about
whether it's a good idea,'' she said.
The old adage ''too good to be true'' was a reality, Mrs
''It pays to run things by someone. We are here to help
protect people from being taken advantage of,'' she said.
It was difficult for elderly people to know whether they were
being duped, and many were trusting of strangers if they
presented as professionals, she said.
An elderly person was likely to let someone into their home
if they appeared to be a tradesperson concerned about the
state of the house, for example.
Mrs Bennett said the police were usually unable to do
anything if a transaction was willingly entered into at the
time, particularly if it involved a signed agreement.
Although there may be nothing illegal about such dealings,
they were often morally wrong, she said.
Dunedin MP and Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael Woodhouse
said anyone who took advantage of an elderly person should be
ashamed of themselves.
He said those who made transactions with elderly people and
subsequently became aware of age-related issues to do with
the transaction, such as confusion, should do what they could
to rectify the situation.
They had a moral imperative to do so, Mr Woodhouse said.
''Whether or not the transaction was legal, it's a moral
issue. If someone feels ripped off or like they have been
taken advantage of, any merchant worth their salt would
reverse the transaction immediately.''
Mr Woodhouse said it was often family members who abused
their relationship with elderly relatives, particularly when
money was involved.
''It's an unfortunate reality.''
Elderly people were especially reluctant to deny their
relatives' requests for money, to prevent conflict, he said.
Mr Woodhouse said recent legislative changes made it an
aggravating factor of crime to take advantage of an elderly
person, just as it was to offend against youth or other
''The Government takes this sort of thing very seriously.
Unfortunately, we can pass all the laws we like, but this is
really a societal issue and society needs to condemn those
engaged in elder abuse.''
The Ministry of Consumer Affairs said legal advice was the
best avenue for elderly people who felt they might have been
It said people could expect a certain level of service under
the Consumer Guarantees Act 1993, including reasonable skill
and care (section 28), fitness for purpose (s 29), services
completed in a reasonable time or in the time fixed by
contract (s 30) and guarantees as to the price of services (s
The Contractual Mistakes Act 1977 might also be relevant, the
It stated relief may be granted where mistake by one party
was known to an opposing party or was common or mutual.
Courts could grant relief under section 7 to any party to a
contract if that party was influenced in their decision to
enter into the contract by mistake and the existence of the
mistake was known to the other party.
Relief could also be granted if the mistake resulted at the
time of the contract in a substantially unequal exchange of
Courts could declare a contract to be valid, cancel a
contract, grant relief by varying a contract, and grant
relief through restitution or compensation.
Prof Amanda Barusch, of the University of Otago's department
of sociology, gender and social work, said a person could
experience varying degrees of competence in respect of making
decisions, particularly when they were elderly.
''The notion that you're either competent or not competent is
getting a lot of traction these days, as issues like this
come to the fore,'' she said.
If people doubted their ability to make good decisions, or
their loved ones were concerned about them making decisions,
there were devices such as power of attorney which could be
implemented to help, Prof Barusch said.
''They can designate someone else who they trust to make
decisions, but the key, of course, is that they need to be
very specific about what decisions they're ready to delegate
to another person,'' she said.
Problems often arose because it was hard to protect
vulnerable people without taking away their rights and
freedom, she said.
Prof Barusch said another aid for elderly people was
databases which listed reputable professionals they could
trust, or listed those known for dodgy dealing.
''In that way, community organisations like Age Concern can
help,'' she said.
• Anyone can call Age Concern Otago in Dunedin on (03)
477-1040 or Alexandra on (03) 448-7075.