The legal establishment is often the last to embrace the modern electronic world. The majority, if not all, documents when dealing with Wills, Lasting Powers of Attorney and Estate Administration have to be signed personally and the original is required.
Covid-19 has thrown this into dispute with people on lock down. Despite this the demand for wills is said to have jumped by 76%. This is said to be due to fear, and people having more time on their hands. However, Wills need to be signed in person and witnessed in person at the same time. These rules have been in place since 1837, and with the current crisis it has never been more evident that change is needed.
Solicitors across the country are calling for change, and the Law Society and Ministry of Justice are said to be in talks regarding an overhaul of probate legislation. It is unclear what form the new laws could take, and whether they would be temporary. However, it is apparent that clients safety is being threatened by the requirements to create a valid Will. This is along with the friends or neighbours being asked to witness, or the lawyers who find themselves trying to find appropriate ways to ensure the Wills are executed correctly whilst the vulnerable are protected.
I, along with Lawyers across the country, wait with bated breath to see what conclusion the new legislation will take. One just hopes it will not take them too long to make a decision.
Demand for wills has surged in the past two weeks because of coronavirus fears but client safety is being undermined by the need to sign and witness wills in person.
According to a study by financial consultancy deVere Group, demand for wills jumped by 76% in the past fortnight, as the pandemic exerts a collective focusing-of-minds effect. Nigel Green, chief executrive, attributed the rise to frightening death tolls and the fact people have more time on their hands.
Meanwhile, it has been reported that Farewill, an online will writer, has seen enquiries almost triple since the outbreak. The firm is now receiving around 2,000 requests per week, up from just 700 before the Covid-19 crisis.
Solicitors have called for urgent changes around the signing and witnessing of wills in the face of growing demand. Gareth Horner, managing partner of Salisbury firm Parker Bullen, said: Demand for wills is surging locally, but the government must change rules to allow for electronic signatures or the lawyers to sign on a persons behalf and witnessing via video conferencing.
We are already using video conferencing that enables several parties to participate at the same time. This technology ensures that people, especially the vulnerable, do not need to leave their homes. However, this is being undermined by the fact that a Will needs to be signed and witnessed by two individuals in person.
Talks between the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society about a major overhaul of probate legislation are still ongoing. Among the options are an Australian-style approach which would give judges more flexibility when deciding what constitutes a will; a European-style system where testators could write wills by hand without witnesses; and a process where wills could be witnessed electronically.
Current laws around the signing of wills have been in place since 1837, and it is unclear whether new legislation would be revoked once the coronavirus crisis is over.