Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A Patchwork of Legislation

Nicola Sharp

I joined Missing People as Director of Policy and Advocacy in June 2011, just as the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults embarked on its inquiry into support for families of missing people. The inquiry examined a range of issues across four oral evidence sessions, with the second session examining what ‘presumption of death’ provisions are available in England and Wales.

It came as a surprise for me to learn that we do not have a specific piece of ‘presumption of death’ legislation, unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland where Acts were introduced in 1977 and 2009 respectively. Listening to the oral evidence given to APPG members, I was struck by how complicated the legal system is for a family who believes that their missing family member has passed away and who need this to be recognised by the courts in order to administer that person’s affairs. As things currently stand, families may have to go to court on a number of occasions to have a loved one declared dead for a variety of different purposes. Not only can this be expensive, time consuming and confusing for families, but it can exacerbate the already difficult emotional position they find themselves in.

What I also found puzzling is that each of these processes requires different standards of proof, meaning that there is the potential for a person to be treated as alive for some purposes under the common law, but dead for others by virtue of statute law. I thought that Patricia Barratt, a senior associate at Clifford Chance,  summed the current system in England and Wales up well when she said that ‘this is a confused area of law; a patchwork of statutory legislation, primary legislation, secondary legislation and probate laws mixed with common law provisions’.

Contrast this with the system that exists in Scotland, for example, where a missing person can be presumed dead during a single court appearance for all purposes, and it is not difficult to see why many of the families that Missing People supports in England and Wales perceive this to be very unfair. Moreover Missing People, like many other agencies that have contact with families when someone is missing, struggles to provide guidance and support to families in these circumstances.

Following the end of the inquiry, the APPG made a series ofrecommendations to Government about the support required by families whensomeone goes missing. Missing People was delighted to see that one of these recommendations was for the Ministry of Justice to take steps to consult on presumption of death and set out a timetable for legislative change; not least because this is something that we have been lobbying on for some time as part of our Missing Rights campaign.

This was followed, in July 2011, by more positive news – an announcement that the Justice Select Committee has decided to hold a short inquiry into presumption of death. Missing People is now working closely with families in England and Wales to submit written evidence to the inquiry which highlights the shortcomings of the current system. As part of our submission, we are keen to compare and contrast the experience of a family in England and Wales with that of a family that has used specific presumption of death legislation in Scotland. Records show that 171 people have been presumed dead since legislation was introduced in 1977. 

If you have used the Presumption of Death (1977) Act and would like to support Missing People’s work around this issue so that other families might have access to a better system, then please consider getting in contact via e-mail or telephone 020 8392 4525.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The language of loss

Sarah Wayland

A few weeks ago a significant Australian missing persons case came to a close, of sorts. The remains of a young boy who vanished almost eight years ago were discovered and the media went into overdrive about what this might mean for the family and for families in general.

Working in the field of missing persons for the last few years has given me the opportunity to explore unresolved loss – its complexity, its challenges and its language. We don’t tend think about the language of loss in our day to day lives but language can have such a powerful impact - for families to describe what has happened to them, for the media to report it and for the community to attempt to respond to it.

Look at any missing persons report in a news publication or social media site and the words hope, answers and closure are usually there – families are asked to hold onto hope, they plead for answers to a multitude of questions and the media attach the need for closure as if there is a way to tidy up such an ambiguous and unrelenting loss.

But the issue I keep coming back to is why, as a society, do we need to be so black and white about a loss that is neither. Families of missing people have told me that to have someone missing is to live in that space in between – not just in between life and death, but between hope and hopelessness, between answers and more questions and between closure and not being able to move on…

Regardless of the type of loss people rarely move on from it – it becomes part of their story, they carry it with them for the rest of their lives – just the same as families and friends of missing people. The language is just another way for our community to rationalise the unimaginable – as a community we don’t tend to cope well with not knowing and having someone missing is the ultimate not knowing – whether it be for short or long periods the place where families sit in-between is filled with so many unanswerable questions.

The location of remains is not good news (despite many media outlets and social media sites referring to it in such a way) it is just another step in the journey of living with an unresolved loss. The what if questions may still remain, the longing that things may have been different and the discovery of the person may signal that hope is over – the finality of the loss creates a whole new set of challenges for those left behind.

I stated in an article I wrote a few weeks ago that:

We know that in any person’s lifetime they will be faced with sudden and unexpected challenges. We lament at how bad things happen to good people. The loss of a person who is missing creates an additional complexity – it is no worse or better than any other loss but it is different. It is different because families of missing people are forced to live in that space between the possibility of life and death. A place where some days they imagine the return of a loved one and then other days they are hit with the stark reality that that person may not be coming back. Regardless of what they feel on any given day the ‘missing’ part does not allow them to speak with certainty about their loss.

Our new ways of connecting with each other via social media may have some benefits – it allows families of missing people to know that others are thinking and are supportive of them and it lifts the veil of silence that sometimes comes with such a complicated loss. As long as we try to keep supporting each other through whatever losses, the ambiguous and the more clear cut ones, we can only create a better community that is open to thinking realistically about loss and all of the complexities that come may come with it.

Sarah Wayland has been working as an Australian social worker in the missing persons field since 2003 and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study the international approach to counseling and unresolved loss. She visited agencies, including Missing People UK, in 2006. She is currently completing postgraduate studies in the field of hope and loss at the University of New England, Australia and writes a blog about the challenges of loss at

Friday, 2 September 2011

Changing Phases

These last few months have been surreal for our family. 
We have spent the better part of 14 years wondering what happened to our son Damien. The brick wall that we have been trying to climb has finally given way in terms of the investigation. It was sudden and unexpected that the case changed from 14 1/2 years of being a missing person case, to a possible criminal case. Although we suspected this might be a possibility, it was still a shock to hear those words: 'possible murder’. We are still waiting on the outcome and every day is a hill to climb until we find the answers we hope will be forthcoming and in our hearts we are keenly aware that there may never be any answers that will give us the final and ultimate peace of “just knowing the truth”.
How do you go from one stage to another? I feel stranded now, treading water in that I cannot fight anymore – the police are listening and taking things to another level.  I've had anger in me since day one, not at Damien, but at the blatant lack of consideration of the police that left our family hanging in a terrible limbo without any direction or support.  The cold, cynical comments and the promises that kept coming and repeated by one senior police officer after another assigned to Damien’s case over the years.  I had anger, and anger helped to channel my actions and to mobilize me to push and take up the search Damien ourselves and whatever publicity came our way to keep Damien’s face and story out there.  I have always felt someone, somewhere may know the answers, but for so long I hit a brick wall.  However, that seems to have taken a new turn, albeit almost 15 years on.   The odd thing is that now I have nowhere to channel my fury….it has dissipated, or perhaps just simmering somewhere waiting to be ignited if need be… and I am left with a new set of circumstances to consider and all the “what ifs” that go with this new phase.  Bottom line is that Damien is still a missing person and until we find out the truth we will never give up on him but I am in new unchartered waters that I cannot predict.
I say phase, as I have found over the years that my strength comes in phases and when it does, this is when we will have a spate of high profile publicity and events for Damien.  It is like riding on a wave and a tide of passion – a crusade.  Suddenly we find a right time and a right place to give it our all in finding answers for Damien.  Afterwards, as with all waves our resolve comes crashing down again and back to earth and stark reality that we still have nothing and still Damien is nowhere closer to being found.  This takes you to another phase that is a self-preservation phase, where you are exhausted emotionally and the overwhelming need is peace and anonymity and solace to recharge and rethink for the next phase.  I sometimes feel that I am turning away from Damien at these times, and I do feel guilty about it –it is as though I have left him somehow, lost and alone.  However, I have to take time to just ‘stop’ and back away, take stock.  It has to be done, but the expense is in my soul which is tortured by guilt for stopping and physically needing rest.  There is no balance…rest is just physical, but emotions never go away or ceases to exist.  It is constant.
I always knew that one day the situation could perhaps change and I know that I am ready to meet the challenges of whatever happens.  One thing I have learned is that there is nothing that I cannot handle now and I will keep going from one phase to the next as they present themselves and I will come out the other side stronger and more determined.   We live in hope we may find peace and yet ready to continue the uphill battle if needed and fight Damien’s corner, because if we don’t….who will??  Watch this space…..

By Valerie Nettles
Mother of missing Damien Nettles

Around 250,000 people go missing in the UK each year. The Missing Blog aims to give a voice to all those affected by this issue.

Written by families and friends of missing people, supporters working to raise awareness of the cause, and volunteers and staff at the charity Missing People, we hope that this blog will offer a window into the issue of missing.

The charity Missing People is a lifeline when someone disappears. To find out more about Missing People and ways that you can support the charity visit

Call or txt the charity Missing People for free on 116 000, 24/7 if you or anyone you know is affected by a disappearance.