MoJ in special measures on charges?

Businesman blows whistle and shows red card
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.

George Hodgson is Chief Executive of STEP

Probate fees: how we got to where we are

Emily Deane TEPFollowing the news late last week that the UK government is scrapping its plans to hike probate fees, Emily Deane TEP looks back on an eventful 15 months for STEP and practitioners.

February 2016
In February 2016 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) issued a consultation paper on reforms to the fee system for grants of probate. The paper proposed to increase the fees for estates of over GBP50,000, with a banded fee structure depending on the estate value. Larger estates faced a 13,000 per cent rise to GBP20,000.

STEP strongly opposed the new system on the basis that the proposed fee would be completely disproportionate to the service provided by the probate court, and would effectively be a new tax on bereaved families.

We raised concerns on the grounds of fairness, practicality and legality, in particular that the new measures being introduced via the Draft Non-Contentious Probate Fees Order 2017 may be ultra vires, i.e. beyond the power of the order.

The consultation was widely circulated, with over 97% of respondents opposing its proposals. Then the matter went quiet for almost a year.

February 2017
On 24 February 2017, STEP received notice from the MoJ that, subject to parliamentary approval, and despite overwhelming opposition to the proposals, the new fee system would be implemented in May 2017: just weeks away.

Concerned that this would have a huge impact on bereaved families and their legal advisors, we set out to highlight the issue to ministers, the media and the public.

We contacted the MoJ highlighting our concerns and requesting a meeting. We received no reply, with the MoJ remaining extremely quiet on the issue. No clear information was posted highlighting the new fee structure to the public, with a discreet link to the consultation response on the gov.uk website the only notice that these changes were coming.

We therefore sought to raise public awareness of the issue, issuing press releases and explaining our concerns to the media, and developing guidance for members of the public.

Our work paid off, with national media including BBC Moneybox, the Daily Mail  and the Mirror  covering the issue. Our guidance for the public was viewed nearly 2,600 times and our social media channels were buzzing with activity.

April 2017
Then at the beginning of April we heard that the influential House of Commons Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments had questioned the legality of the proposals, given that the new ‘fees’ looked very like taxes. But while hopes were raised, the government continued to push forward with no changes to its plans.

Concerned that the issue would not be given proper scrutiny, STEP obtained a legal opinion from leading expert in public law, Richard Drabble QC, who agreed with the SI Committee’s findings and confirmed that ‘the proposed Order would be outside the powers of the enabling Act’.

Then, on Tuesday 18 April, Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election. The pressure was suddenly on to get all orders through before parliament was dissolved.

On Wednesday 19 April the House of Commons Second Delegated Legislation Committee rushed though the Non-Contentious Probate Fees Order 2017 meeting at 8.55am, with no advance warning that it would be tabled that day. It was approved 10 to 2.

On Thursday 20 April we finally received a response from the MoJ to our earlier letter, dismissing our concerns and advising that the fee changes would be going ahead.

We understood that the Lords were due to discuss the matter on Monday 24 April, so we immediately sent the legal opinion to senior politicians in the House of Lords to inform the debate.

Later that evening press reports suddenly emerged that the proposals were to be dropped, and the next day we received a bulletin from the MoJ stating: ‘There is not enough time for the Statutory Instrument which would introduce the new fee structure to complete its passage through parliament before it is dissolved ahead of the general election. This is now a matter for the next government.’

Success…for now…

Our effort, and those of practitioners across the country, to highlight the issue had paid off. The legal uncertainty highlighted by Richard Drabble QC, combined with the media attention, meant that it could not be pushed through the Lords in time.

We have since heard from senior sources in the Lords that the subject may re-surface as primary legislation post-election, in which case it would need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. We presume it would be re-introduced as a new tax, rather than an increased fee. If so, the funds will go to the Treasury, not the MoJ.

STEP will continue to work closely with our members and the media to increase awareness of the matter, although we sincerely hope it will not re-emerge in a different guise.

Emily Deane TEP is STEP Technical Counsel

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

New probate fees: FAQ

UPDATE 21/04/2017: the Ministry of Justice has conceded that the new fee regime has been abandoned due to lack of parliamentary time. See more information.

 

Newcastle District Probate Registry has supplied the following FAQs to help practitioners implement the new probate fees.

Q. What happens in cases where there is a need for an HMRC Assessment will any delay mean I incur the higher fee?

In cases where you are required to submit an IHT 400 or any IHT document for assessment by HMRC for Inheritance tax purposes then it is possible for you to submit the appropriate forms to both HMRC and HMCTS Probate simultaneously. We will not issue your grant until the approved IHT 421 is received but we will mark your application as lodged. To assist us in not raising this as a query it would be advisable to clearly mark your application that the IHT document will follow after assessment.

Q. Do we have the actual date of implementation?

No we do not have the actual date of commencement yet. However we can assure you that on receiving that date a mail shot will be released immediately informing you of that date. HMCTS Probate would however like to work with you now to ensure that we reduce as much as possible the added burden on applications nearer that date. You can assist us in doing this by following the steps in the mail shot sent to you on Monday 6th March.

Q. How do I calculate the estate value that the fee will be charged upon?

The fee is calculated from the net value of the estate after deducting liabilities or debts from the total of assets and gifts – you can do this using the appropriate Inheritance Tax form.

  • On an Inheritance Tax Summary Online application this figure will be the figure noted in the net estate value box
  • On form IHT 205 the net estate value for fees purposes can be found at Box F
  • On form IHT 207 the net estate value for fees purposes can be found at Box H
  • On form IHT 421 the net estate value for fees purposes can be found at Box 5

Q. What is considered as a full application?

A full application for Probate purposes and therefore to qualify for the appropriate fee is defined as the following. It must include:

  • An full oath sworn by all deponents and commissioners
  • An original will and codicil(where appropriate) endorsed by all commissioners and deponents
  • The appropriate number of correct copy wills an codicils
  • An Inland Revenue account (with the exception of IHT 400’s/421’s where assessment is ongoing and it has been noted on the covering letter that it will follow)
  • All associated documents including any affidavit evidence required at the time of submission, renunciations, Powers of attorneys
  • The appropriate fee.

Upon receipt of an application in this form prior to commencement then the existing fee will be charged.

Settlers and Prelodgements are not considered as full applications and therefore submission of an oath for settling prior to commencement and a subsequent oath after commencement will result in the new fee being applied.

Q: When will the new fees be implemented – at date of death or date of application?

The new fees will apply to all applications received by the probate service on or after the implementation date of the new fees irrespective of the date of death. Any application received within working hours of the Probate Registry before the implementation date will be charged the current fee. Subject to approval of the necessary legislation by Parliament, we expect the new fees to take effect from May 2017, but the exact date will be confirmed nearer the time.

Q Is there to be any equivalent of the IHT instalment option for an asset rich / cash poor estates?

There will not be an instalment option available to pay fees. If the estate does not have enough cash to pay the fee, executors will be able to apply to the Probate Service to access a particular asset for the sole purpose of paying the fee.

Q. How does the new fee affect property held between cohabitating couples?

The law remains the same. Any jointly owned assets (e.g. property held as joint tenants) will not require probate, regardless of whether couples are married, in a civil partnership or neither. All couples are free to choose how they hold their property, and they can change to a joint ownership arrangement via the Land Registry.