Government changes E&W probate procedure without consultation

Emily Deane TEPThe government has announced amendments to the procedure for applying for probate in England and Wales, with less than a month’s notice. The Statutory Instrument (The Non-Contentious Probate (Amendment) Rules 2018) will come into force on 27 November 2018.

The Rules were laid as a negative instrument, meaning they don’t need the approval of Parliament and have already been signed into law by the relevant Minister. The instrument can be annulled by Parliament before implementation, but this is rare.

In brief the amended rules:

  1. allow personal online applications for probate to be made by an unrepresented applicant;
  1. enable all applications for probate to be verified by a statement of truth (instead of an oath) and without the will having to be marked (by the applicant, solicitor or probate practitioner);
  1. extend time limits in the caveat process, which give the person registering the caveat notice of any application for probate;
  1. allow caveat applications and standing searches (which give notice of grants being issued) to be made electronically;
  1. extend the powers of district probate registrars equivalent to those of district judges; and
  1. make further provision for the issue of directions (instructions to the parties) in relation to hearings.

The Probate Service has accepted online applications from personal applicants (individuals not represented by probate specialists) since earlier this year, with a view to making the system simpler and ‘easier to understand’.

There are concerns that the introduction of the online service may discourage individuals from using a probate specialist where it may be advisable to do so, for example where the estate is taxable, has foreign or complex components, or may be disputed.

The announcement comes at the same time as the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to increase the probate application fee with a banded fee structure depending on the value of the estate.

STEP strongly opposed this new system when it was proposed in 2016, on the basis that it is disproportionate to the service provided by the probate court. It is effectively a new tax on bereaved families. The government intends to introduce this measure without any proper debate via Statutory Instrument (see STEP blog: The death tax returns).

STEP will continue to follow developments in this area.

 

Emily Deane TEP is STEP Technical Counsel

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