England & Wales probate fees: an update

flowersThis Blog will be updated with developments on the Non-Contentious Probate Fees Order 2018 as they occur.

Background and details on the proposals, including the fee structure, can be found here.

10 May 2019: What’s happening with the Probate Fees order?

7 February 2019:

A House of Commons Delegated Legislation Committee has voted 9 to 8 in favour of progressing the draft Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018 to the Commons for approval.

Lucy Frazer MP, the Minister responsible for the legislation, confirmed during her speech that the changes will be introduced in April (date yet to be confirmed) and that guidance on how to pay fees will be published before the changes take effect.

The next stage is for the Order to go to the House of Commons for approval. The date for this has not yet been announced.

31 January 2019:

Probate fees due to go before House of Commons Delegated Legislation Committee on 7 February at 11.30am (more information).

Background notes

The Committee’s role is to debate the merits of the statutory instrument, instead of an extended debate in the House of Commons itself.

The proceeding will effectively be like a miniature session of the House of Commons (Lucy Frazer MP will speak as the minister responsible and then the Opposition spokesperson, followed by backbenchers). The Committee cannot block the measure from proceeding to a vote in the House of Commons, but at the end of the debate it will vote on whether the Committee has considered the Instrument. Other MPs can speak, but only those on the Committee will be able to vote at the end.

Once it has cleared this stage the instrument goes to the House of Commons for a vote soon afterwards, in this case, probably the following week.

9 January 2019:

STEP received a reply to a letter to Lucy Frazer QC MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Justice and Minister responsible for the Non-Contentious Probate Fees Order 2018, which set out our concerns with the proposed changes. The reply restated the government’s rationale for introducing the measure and refuted the assertion that it represented a tax rather than a fee covering the cost of a service. You can read the full reply here.

18 December 2018:

The Non-Contentious Probate Fees Order 2018 was debated in the House of Lords on 18 December 2018. As an affirmative measure it required a majority to pass. The House stopped short of rejecting the Order, but put on record its concerns, with the following Motion to Regret moved by Lord Beecham:

‘This House regrets that the draft Order will introduce a revised non-contentious probate fee structure considered by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to be “so far above the actual cost of the service [it] arguably amounts to a stealth tax and, therefore, a misuse of the fee-levying power” under section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014; and that this Order represents a significant move away from the principle that fees for a public service should recover the cost of providing it and no more.’

The next stage for the Non-Contentious Probate Fees Order 2018 is to be scrutinised by a House of Commons Delegated Legislation Committee. No date has been set for this and it will depend on other business in front of MPs. STEP will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates where appropriate.

6 December 2018:

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments scrutinised the Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018 (see the Fortieth Report of Session 2017–19 (PDF)) and drew it to parliament’s special attention:

The Committee draws the special attention of both Houses to this draft Order on the grounds that, if it is approved and made, there will be a doubt whether it is intra vires, and that it would in any event make an unexpected use of the power conferred by the enabling Act’

The other committee tasked with examining secondary legislation, the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in the 6th Report of Session 2017–19 (PDF) also drew parliament’s attention to the measure, calling it a ‘stealth tax’.

More detail on these developments can be found here.

Daniel Nesbitt, Policy Executive, STEP 

Committee draws probate fees legislation to UK parliament’s special attention

Daniel NesbittUPDATE 07/12/2018

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments’ full report (PDF) has now been published and includes the following conclusion:

The Committee draws the special attention of both Houses to this draft Order on the grounds that, if it is approved and made, there will be a doubt whether it is intra vires, and that it would in any event make an unexpected use of the power conferred by the enabling Act.

The Committee reached the same view regarding the government’s attempt to raise probate fees in 2017. Underlining this position, the report notes that the Ministry of Justice’s arguments did not ‘dispel the Committee’s doubts about vires expressed in its report on the 2017 Order’.

The depiction of the changes as a ‘fee’ was also challenged by the Committee, which felt the new banded system bore the characteristics of a tax. The report noted that the higher payments were disproportionate to the actual cost of the service and that the measure represented what was in effect a type of stamp duty on probate applications.

The views expressed by the Committee match the legal opinion STEP obtained from Richard Drabble QC in response to the 2017 proposals.

ORIGINAL BLOG 6/12/2018

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has scrutinised the Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018, and drawn it to parliament’s special attention.

The committee is responsible for examining the technical aspects of secondary legislation; ensuring that the drafting is correct, clear and within the powers granted by the act under which they are being made. Although it can highlight measures it believes to be of concern, the Joint Committee cannot block or amend legislation itself.

The other committee tasked with examining secondary legislation, the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in the 6th Report of Session 2017–19 (PDF) has also drawn parliament’s attention to the measure, calling it a ‘stealth tax’.

The next stage for the order in the House of Lords is for it to be voted on; and as an affirmative measure it will require a majority to pass. In the House of Commons a delegated legislation committee will be convened to scrutinise the legislation.

The Joint Committee’s full report on the order, setting out its detailed views, is yet to be published but it is expected to be released tomorrow (Fri 7 Dec 2018).

STEP will continue to monitor the situation and will provide updates where appropriate.

Daniel Nesbitt, Policy Executive, STEP 

The death tax returns

George HodgsonUpdate 13 Nov: Please see the Statutory Instrument timeframe below.

Original blog: The UK government has re-introduced proposals to fund the courts service via charging higher probate fees. The proposals emerged late yesterday (5 Nov 18), a week after the budget.

While the headline charges are less extortionate than were proposed last year, for an estate of GBP300,001 – GBP500,000 the fee will rise 249 per cent to GBP750, and for a GBP1 million estate, the fee will rise to GBP4,000, an increase of 1,760 per cent (see table below).

According to 2014/15 figures, 261,500 estates went to probate, of which only 35,000 were under GBP50,000. This indicates that 85 per cent of estates, where probate applies, will therefore see an increase in fees.

Value of Estate New Fee % Change (from £215)
Up to £5,000 £0   0%
£5,000 – £50,000 £0 -100%
£50,001 – £300,000 £250 +16%
£300,001 – £500,000 £750 +249%
£500,001 – £1m £2,500 +1,063%
£1m – £1.6m £4,000 +1,760%
£1.6m – £2m £5,000 +2,226%
Over £2m £6,000 +2,691%

The new charges bear no relation to the cost of probate, and are simply another form of taxation, sneaked in through the back door.

The government has failed to explain why it is choosing to place this burden on bereaved families, many of whom will have spent months or years paying expensive care fees for their elderly relatives. It is this group which has been singled out to shoulder the cost of the courts service via this additional tax, to be paid on top of IHT and legal expenses.

The government still plans to try and introduce this measure without any proper debate via statutory instrument. STEP has obtained a legal opinion which confirms that, given the tax nature of this measure, this is an abuse of the parliamentary process, a view shared by the House of Commons Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (link below).

We will continue to press for a fairer and more transparent approach to probate fees reform.

George Hodgson is Chief Executive of STEP.

Update re Statutory Instrument timeframe

For members wishing to know the next stages of the statutory instrument the process in the House of Lords is as follows:

The instrument is laid before Parliament and is subsequently considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee:

  • The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments usually considers an instrument after two sitting weeks have elapsed. This process involves looking at the legal content of statutory instruments, for example whether the drafting follows the correct process and if the relevant powers have been interpreted correctly. The Committee meets on Wednesdays.
  • The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee usually considers instruments within 12-16 days of them being laid in Parliament. The Committee examines the policy in each instrument. It draws the House of Lord’s attention to interesting, flawed or inadequately explained measures. The Committee meets on Tuesdays and publishes its reports on Thursdays.

Once both committees have considered the instrument and given their advice a debate can take place in the House of Lords.  Peers can either approve the instrument, decline to approve it (which would stop the measure) or regret a part of it (which doesn’t stop it, but may influence how it is implemented). The timing of this debate will depend on the other items in front of the House of Lords.

This process can be accelerated under certain circumstances but there is also a large amount of Brexit-related secondary legislation both awaiting consideration by the Joint Committee as well as quite a few other instruments listed as awaiting an Affirmative Resolution.

The process in the House of Commons is as follows:

At the same time as the above process for the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments an instrument is referred to a Delegated Legislation Committee:

  • Delegated Legislation Committee: Made up of between 16 and 18 members it is tasked with ensuring an instrument is legal and within scope of its enabling powers. MPs not serving on the Committee can attend to speak on the issue, but only those on the Committee can vote.

After the Committee has met, the instrument is debated in the House of Commons.

If approved by both Houses of Parliament it is signed into law by the relevant Minister.

It is estimated that the average time for the process to be completed in the House of Commons is 6 to 7 weeks.

Probate fees – will common sense prevail?

George HodgsonThe government’s threat to radically increase probate fees next month (Probate fee rise ‘a new tax on bereaved families’) may be receding, following a meeting of the House of Commons Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on 29 March.

Using some very welcome common sense, the committee raises the issue (para 1.12) that it is a constitutional principle that there should be ‘no taxation without the consent of Parliament’. This is something I suspect 99% of people will agree with.

It finds that the proposal from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is clearly a tax, not a fee, in every normal definition of the term, and should therefore be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny, rather than brought in via the back door through a Statutory Instrument.

The committee also finds (para 1.13) that ‘charges’ of the magnitude proposed by the MoJ were probably never envisaged when the original legislation the government was attempting to use here was approved. In other words, using this process is an abuse.

We would hope that this will provide an opportunity for the government to re-think its approach, which was criticised by over 90% of those responding to the consultation, and submit re-worked proposals for proper scrutiny by Parliament.

• Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments: Non-Contentious Probate Fees Order 2017

 

George Hodgson is Chief Executive of STEP