Fundamental changes to the law surrounding vulnerable people not able to make their own decisions may have consequences for more and more of us as the population continues to get older.
The Mental Capacity Act 2005 which will come into force in April 2007 sets out in greater detail who can make decisions for them and under what circumstances this can happen.
The Act replaces current statutory provisions for enduring powers of attorney (EPA) and court of protection receivership schemes.
Phillip Martin-Summers, a partner at Black Country law firm Higgs & Sons, says it will bring in even greater protection for those such as the elderly and people with learning difficulties who may be particularly at risk.
Under the new law, EPAs will be replaced by lasting power of attorneys which, in addition to current powers, also allows the attorney to make health and welfare decisions on behalf of the individual concerned.
This includes fundamental information on where and when any medical treatment should cease based on the wishes of the person themselves - so called 'living wills'.
A fundamental difference between the two regimes is that, whereas now an EPA must be registered when the man or woman becomes, or starts to become, mentally incapable of managing his or her property and financial affairs, under the new Act a living power of attorney (LPA) must be registered as soon as it is executed.
"Although this will increase costs, it is to be welcomed as giving greater protection to the donor," said Mr Martin-Summers.
A new Public Guardian will be created with responsibility for registering the authority of LPAs and providing courts with information to help them make decisions on individual cases.
The Public Guardian, which will itself be monitored by an independent board, will work closely with agencies such as the police and social services to respond to any concerns about the way in which an LPA is operating.
"At its core the 2005 Act enshrines the assumption that everyone has the right to make their own decisions until such a time it is proven they are no longer able to do so," said Mr Martin-Summers, who is based at Higgs' Kingswinford office which operates a specialist "older persons" practise.
"The Act also establishes the setting up of a code of practice which will ensure that all decisions are made in the best interests of the vulnerable person, with clear procedures put in place to protect that basic assumption."
In cases where vulnerable people do not have anyone to speak for them, the 2005 Act also provides for an independent mental capacity advocate to be appointed.
Advocates are able to make representations about a person's wishes, feeling and beliefs to anyone making decisions about that person's life.
"The Mental Capacity Act 2005 is an important piece of legislation which will have an increasing impact as the population becomes older and more and more people become vulnerable.
"With clear guidelines for anyone acting on behalf of vulnerable people including the appointment of advocates for those who do not have anyone to speak up for them, this Act is another positive step forward for people who, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to make decisions for themselves," said Mr Martin-Summers.