Japan's adult guardianship system — produced in 2000 to help incapacitated people who have lost the ability to make proper judgment and decisions on their own — is still not being widely used. The system has also suffered setbacks from a series of wrongdoings by the guardians of those people, such as embezzling the bank accounts of their wards. The government is discussing ways to improve the system, and relevant parties should come up with ideas that will be effective in both expanding the use and preventing abuse of the system.

Under the system, when an adult has lost the capacity to make rational decisions due to such problems as senile dementia or intellectual and mental disabilities, a request is filed with a family court to select a guardian. The request is generally filed by a relative or an administrative official. The guardian is supposed to support the incapacitated person by managing their assets and signing contracts for such matters as nursing care services.

The role of guardian is usually filled by a relative, a professional such as a lawyer, legal scrivener or social worker, a trained local citizen or an organization like a social welfare council. Professionals account for about 70 percent of the people serving as guardians.

Last year, a law came into force to promote the use of the system in response to a growing need for adult guardianship stemming from the increase in the number of households consisting only of elderly people.

The number of people who seek and get a guardian appointed for them remains small — about 191,000 as of the end of 2015. They are believed to represent only a fraction of the people who actually need such support — given that as of 2012, 4.62 million people aged 65 or older were estimated to suffer from senile dementia and 4 million others with a lesser degree of cognitive disorder. The number of people with senile dementia is forecast to rise as Japan’s population continues its rapid aging, and is expected to reach 7 million by 2025. Under the law, which calls for improving the training of ordinary citizens who serve as guardians as well as steps to prevent abuse of the system, the government is to work out a basic plan to implement such measures.

A pillar of a draft plan put forward by the government’s committee of experts is the creation of a joint council in each municipality that would coordinate efforts of city hall, the family court, lawyers associations, social welfare organizations and medical institutions.

The idea behind the proposal is to tear down institutional walls and facilitate communication among these actors so they can respond quickly to the needs of the people seeking support. Also proposed is the launch of a department in each municipal office and organizations such as social welfare councils to deal with and give advice to people seeking guardianship or the elderly who need help in managing their assets or obtaining nursing care services.

In designing and running the proposed system, municipalities must make sure that it is easy to use for those who need assistance. This is important since people who may notice the decline in their close relatives’ ability to make proper judgments in their daily lives often do not know where to turn to for advice and end up not using the guardianship system.

Prevention of the system’s abuse is also in need of particular attention. According to the Supreme Court, in 2015 there were 521 cases of abuse, including embezzlement by guardians, with the total financial damage reaching ¥2.97 billion (US$26 million). While a large part of the wrongdoing was committed by relatives serving as guardians, 37 cases involved abuse by professional such as lawyers and legal scriveners, with the financial damage amounting to ¥110 million. A family court can appoint a third party to supervise the acts of a guardian or take steps to prevent the withdrawal of excessive amounts of money from the bank accounts of people supported by guardians.

A multilayered mechanism to prevent abuse of the system by guardians with the participation of various parties should be worked out. Some cases of abuse have been committed by relatives of incapacitated people who do not fully understand the responsibility and obligations of their role as guardian.

Responses to the issues surrounding the adult guardianship system vary from municipality to municipality, leading to disparities in residents’ understanding and use of the system. The national and local governments should make serious efforts so that the system can be used with ease anywhere across the nation.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Olivia Yang