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Online probate changes – fake Wills more likely to go undetected say civil servants

At the same time as the Government prepares to cash in on massive increases in probate fees, it is attempting to save money by handing over the vital Will verification process currently handled by experienced civil servants to a private ‘bulk scanning firm’ which will use an automated system.

The scheme, which just like the probate fee increases has not been subjected to parliamentary scrutiny, means that elderly and vulnerable people could be ripped off – with fake Wills more likely to go undetected – paying more for a service which potentially gives them less protection from fraud.

Vital checks

The change, brought in as part of a new online probate application service launched in January and designed to speed things up, means that eventually a private firm will take over the vital job of checking whether a Will is an original and not a copy.

Once it has done this, it will send its report to HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) which will be able to view this report and not the original Will.

Fake Wills more likely to go unspotted

This, say the experienced civil servants who currently carry out this task in person before probate can be granted, significantly increases the chance of a fake Will slipping through the net.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents more than 180,000 civil servants says: “Determining the validity of a Will is a fundamental part of the process which culminates in the issue of the grant of probate.

‘Detailed and forensic’

“The checking process is a detailed and forensic one currently carried out and overseen by civil servants with extensive years of experience.

“Without any consultation, HMCTS is transferring the process to a private firm. They will be informing the decision-making process as to the basis on which a grant of probate is issued.

“This is a judicial process and our members, the legal profession and the public should have been consulted.”

The Ministry of Justice, which has overseen the increase in probate charges, says the private firm chosen, Exela, has 30 years of experience in the bulk scanning industry and that the validity of Wills will still checked by HMCTS.

A spokesperson claimed: “Added counter fraud measures include holograms, digital seals and digital signatures make cheating the system even harder.”

Concerns

Despite this assurance, here at Wards Solicitors, we remain extremely concerned about a money saving exercise which will change the way Wills are verified – especially as the proposed increases to probate fees will bring in around £155 million for the Government.

Not only is validating a Will – by a real person with a real pair of eyes looking at the original document – a fundamental way of ensuring it meets legal requirements, it is also vital to check for signs it has been forged or altered in any way since it was originally executed.

People, including the old and vulnerable, now face paying more for a probate system that leaves them more at risk of fraud. Where’s the justice in that?

Click here to read Jenny’s recent article Act now to beat probate fee increases delayed by Brexit.

Jenny Pierce, head of Wards Solicitors’ Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity team, is a director of Solicitors for the Elderly, a specialist group of lawyers set up to support and make a difference to older and vulnerable people, as well as the regional coordinator for Bristol and Bath. For further help and guidance, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity team.

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