STEP was one of the bodies most actively engaged in the furore that developed around the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) proposal to raise probate fees for some estates from £155/215 to as much as £20,000.
One of the things that enraged many STEP members was not just the scale of the increase, but the fact that overwhelming criticism in response to the consultation on the proposals had been entirely disregarded. Moreover, the mechanism by which the MoJ were looking to introduce the new fee – via a Statutory Instrument with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny – appeared to be a clear abuse of process; a view confirmed by a legal opinion commissioned by STEP.
In the end, the increase in probate fees appears to have been shelved, at least for the time being. It has recently emerged, however, that it is not just probate fees that have been getting the MoJ into a spot of hot water. Fees for Powers of Attorney were also raised to levels that more than covered costs, but the MoJ had again failed to follow the procedures needed in these circumstances. Fees for Powers of Attorney have since, with effect from 1 April 2017, been reduced, and the Office of the Public Guardian is looking at ways to refund those who have paid too much. (See Justice ministry to repay GBP89 million of powers of attorney overcharges.)
Even more intriguingly, the MoJ, in its Annual Report, has let slip that it is ‘undertaking a review of lessons learnt [from the Powers of Attorney fees issue] which has led to the creation of a new income strategy unit which will oversee the standards and controls set for all income streams.’
The Report goes on to say: ‘There have also been a number of improvements to the way in which we forecast and monitor fees to ensure compliance with requirements set by HM Treasury.’
Stripping through the civil service code, this sounds like there has been fairly sharp exchange of views between HM Treasury and the MoJ over fees that begin to look like taxes, with Treasury no doubt highlighting that there are supposed to be rules and procedures when it comes to this sort of thing.
The funding gap left by the failure to get the probate fee increase through before the election still needs to be addressed. How the MoJ will eventually fill that gap remains to be seen. It sounds, however, like we can at least expect the MoJ to pay a bit more attention to due process when this issue next comes up than it was minded to earlier this year.