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16th February 2024

Daniel Watson considers historians’ criticisms over proposed plans to digitise Wills

Daniel Watson considers historians’ criticisms over proposed plans to digitise Wills
Daniel Watson
Daniel Watson
Senior Associate

Daniel’s article was posted in eprivateclient, 16 February 2024, and can be seen here.

Government plans to digitise and destroy wills draws historians’ attention

Historians and other commentators have criticised the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) proposals to radically alter the system for storing Wills, warning that the UK government will be guilty of “sheer vandalism” if its plans come to fruition.

The row stems from the MoJ’s proposition to move from physical storage of Wills to deploying a digital database to retain Wills, and the destruction of almost all paper copies of Wills as a result.

Original, paper wills have been retained since an Act of Parliament in 1858 required all Wills to be archived in their original paper form. This has resulted in over 100 million Wills in currently being held in paper form in warehouses.

According to the MoJ, the move to digital storage would save taxpayers an annual £4.5 million, thanks to the relatively inexpensive cost of running servers to host the vast number of documents, and would also make it much simpler for members of the public to access any Wills they seek to retrieve and examine.

At the same time, the proposed changes to the current Wills storage system would see physical documents retained for a period of around 25 years in recognition of their sentimental value to families, after which period the records would be held only in digital form.

The MoJ’s proposals seem a sensible move by the government, given the technology now available to digitise archives and the burdensome cost of warehousing millions of paper Wills.

However, the proposed shift from physical to digital storage has raised the hackles of opponents, who believe that paper records are an essential part of Britain’s cultural history, and who dispute the idea that digital storage is on a par with physical retention of documents.

Criticism was also directed at the MoJ’s proposal to make exceptions in the case of “Wills belong[ing] to notable individuals or [that] have significant historical interest”, with such documents continuing to be preserved in physical form on behalf of the nation.

The MoJ cited the Wills of Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Diana, Princess of Wales, suggesting that the Wills of similarly culturally important figures would meet the threshold for retention in physical form despite the overall plans for a move to digital storage of Wills.

The idea of the government of the day deciding whose Wills are considered important to the nation at any particular time is problematic. Allowing civil servants to decide who constitutes a figure of sufficient national importance is arguably unsatisfactory.

Equally, someone may achieve recognition and renown long after their death (and after their paper Will has been destroyed) meaning that it is not possible to accurately decide under this criterion whose Will is or is not worthy of preservation at the time of their death.

Nonetheless, looking at the bigger picture, the retention of all paper Wills is arguably obsolete. Thanks to the rapid advances in technology in recent years, digitisation has become an accepted – and sometimes preferred – part of daily life, greatly easing access to documents such as bank statements, hospital records or other official documents for millions of citizens.

The MoJ must, of course, take security and digital integrity into consideration when building a system to digitally store Wills, but as long as it deploys sufficiently robust technology to prevent the hacking of its servers and destruction of digital files, there should be arguably no more threat to its archives than to its current physical store of documents (which are at risk of fire, theft, etc.).

At the same time, since the public has not shown significant opposition to digitisation in other, arguably more important areas of their lives, it appears that the public opinion might not oppose the digitisation of Wills.

When the government began retaining Wills in 1858, the only option was to store them in physical form; now that technology has provided a cheaper and more efficient way to run the Wills retention system, the MoJ has no reason to persist with an outdated method. As such, the MoJ’s plans are arguably logical and forward thinking – so long as the technology works.