‘Grief tax’ (The Times). ‘Death tax’ (Telegraph, Daily Mail). ‘Stealth death tax’ (BBC). ‘Stealth death grief coffin tax’ (Hyperbole Weekly).
Media coverage of the MoJ’s decision to scrap changes to probate fees was predictably jubilant. ‘Thousands of people would have faced sharp jumps in probate costs,’ whooped the national broadcaster.
Indeed. But thousands of people – mainly poorer people – would have faced no ‘grief tax’ at all under the (greatly diluted) plans for a sliding scale. Raising the threshold for total exemption from £5,000 to £50,000 would have lifted an estimated 25,000 of the lowest-value estates out of fees altogether.
No more than £250 would have been payable on estates worth up to £300,000. Very affordable, surely, when you’re coming into hundreds of thousands of pounds of someone else’s money.
Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised by the coverage. Newspapers commonly describe inheritance tax as a wealth tax on the ‘middle-class’ when only 4% of estates actually pay it. The top 4% is a rather more rarefied stratum, and one many people would happily pay a few hundred quid to join. Yet inheritance tax remains toxic across the political spectrum; and a probate fee that rises with the value of the estate is a de facto inheritance tax.
That is why the MoJ has done the right thing, if not necessarily for the right reasons. A banded system undoubtedly amounted to a stealth tax (always bad), as well as a wealth tax (good or bad, depending on your political inclination).
Moreover, the government’s rationale for the changes also reflected the grim and disingenuous fiscal calculus that now lies at the heart of justice policy. And that has to be opposed. ‘Fees are necessary to properly fund our world-leading courts system,’ said the department, announcing a wider fee review.
Is our crumbling courts system still ‘world-leading’? The swish Rolls Building certainly does well by foreign oligarchs. But let that pass.
More to the point, the quality of our courts system should not be contingent on how much its gatekeepers can rake in at the turnstiles. Such a reductive approach to justice remains as depressing as it is retrograde.