Fury at delayed law for families of the missing

Father of chef Claudia Lawrence accuses MPs of acting too slowly, prolonging relatives' 'torture'

The father of a woman who has been missing for five years has strongly criticised the Government for failing to help traumatised families left in limbo. Peter Lawrence, whose daughter Claudia disappeared after leaving work, hit out at delays in reforming the law on missing people.

Peter Lawrence, speaking before Tuesday's anniversary of Claudia's disappearance, hit out at the Government's failure to bring a Presumption of Death Act into force. Without a death certificate, families have to go to court to prove that their relative has died in order to administer their estate, dissolve a marriage, claim benefits and life insurance, and deal with business affairs such as mortgages. After years of campaigning, MPs passed the new law last summer but it has still not been enacted, meaning families are still faced with lengthy and costly legal battles when it comes to dealing with the finances and interests of missing relatives.

"I'm getting crosser and crosser with the Government on this. We managed to get the Presumption of Death Act on to the statute book last July. I've met dozens and dozens of other people who have family members missing and what everybody goes through is just a torture," said Mr Lawrence. "The Government has acknowledged that there are thousands of families suffering from this lack of legislation," he added.

Former justice minister Helen Grant pledged the law would be enacted by April this year. But this will not now happen until October.

His concerns were echoed by Susannah Drury, director of policy and advocacy at the charity Missing People: "The delays in bringing the Presumption of Death Act into force are disappointing for families who are waiting to be able to resolve their missing loved one's affairs. Imagine the desperation you would feel if someone you love went missing. Then imagine losing the home you shared, watching their bank accounts drained and the life you hope they will return to fall apart."

Campaigners are also calling for relatives to be given powers over the affairs of those who go missing and are not presumed dead, with the Government set to make an announcement about guardianship of missing people before the Easter recess.

The proposals are already months behind schedule and the issue "is not a priority" for the government, according to Mr Lawrence. "If they don't issue the consultation before Easter, it's not going to happen. Any legislation following the consultation is going to get caught up in the general election, which is a disgrace."

Mr Lawrence is plagued by not knowing if his daughter is alive or dead. The 35-year-old chef was last seen alive by colleagues after finishing a shift at the University of York. "It's just a nightmare. Every day is eating into you, wondering what on earth has happened. It doesn't get any better. It gets more difficult as time goes on."

Time is no healer for families of the missing, he says. "Is Claudia safe? Has she been hurt? Is she alive? These things just go through you every day. It's the not knowing that is the problem, because if you do know what has happened to someone then in time you learn to live with it," he added.

Mr Lawrence is convinced that his daughter was abducted "by someone that she at least recognised. I'm fairly sure that Claudia wouldn't willingly get into a stranger's car."

Police are treating her disappearance as suspected murder. In recent months a review of the case has been undertaken by North Yorkshire Police's major crime unit. Late last year police spent several weeks searching her home on the outskirts of York, where forensic tests were carried out. In a BBC Crimewatch appeal to be broadcast on Wednesday, police will reveal new information about her last-known movements and appeal for help in finding two vehicles seen in the area.

Claudia's father appealed for people to come forward: "Somebody out there knows what happened, how on earth they can keep quiet when they see what's happening to the family I just don't know.... It's very difficult to put into words what the family goes through."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We are committed to helping people who are put into the awful position of losing a loved one who has gone missing and is presumed dead – which is why we are changing the law to help them to deal with the legal issues that come up. We are working to do this as soon as possible, but we want to ensure any changes work well from the outset and we now expect this to be in October."