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Communtity Law Manual | Family violence & elder abuse | The criminal law: Protections for vulnerable adults

Protection for older people against abuse or neglect

The criminal law: Protections for vulnerable adults

Crimes Act 1961, ss 2, 150A, 151, 195, 195A

Changes to the Crimes Act introduced in 2012 mean that certain people are legally responsible for protecting a vulnerable adult from injury.

Who is a “vulnerable adult” in this context?

Crimes Act 1961, s 2

A vulnerable adult is someone who because of their age, sickness or mental impairment, or because they are in detention, is completely unable to remove themselves from the care or charge of another person. They may still have the mental capacity (in terms of the 3PR Act) to make or communicate decisions.

Who must protect a “vulnerable adult”?

Crimes Act 1961, ss 151, 195 195A

At home:

  • Anyone who is over 18 and who is aware that abuse of a vulnerable adult is occurring in the household they live in or are a member of (whether or not they live there) must take reasonable steps to protect that vulnerable adult from death, serious harm or sexual assault.
  • Caregivers of vulnerable adults must ensure that all their basic needs are met and take reasonable steps to protect them from injury.

In care and residential facilities:

  • All staff members of any hospital, institution or residence (such as a rest home) must ensure that a vulnerable adult does not suffer injury, ill-health or any mental disorder due to a major departure from reasonable standards of care.
  • If they become aware that a vulnerable adult is being abused, they must take reasonable steps to protect that vulnerable adult from death, serious harm or sexual assault, and if they have care of the vulnerable adult, injury.
  • Practically, this means that household members and hospital staff must report any serious abuse of vulnerable adults.
  • The maximum penalty for not taking reasonable steps to protect a vulnerable adult from injury is 10 years in prison.

How should abuse be reported?

No single organisation is responsible for investigating the abuse of vulnerable adults. A number of agencies may receive complaints. The most appropriate option will depend on the nature of the abuse. These agencies include:

  • Age Concern
  • The Health and Disability Commissioner
  • The police
  • The operators of the hospital, institution or residence the vulnerable person lives in.

(For information see “Other resources” at the end of this chapter.)

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