Paper wills from 1858 onwards could be destroyed under proposed government reforms to save storage costs.

Preserving original paper wills and supporting documents in probate applications costs £4.5m a year, according to a Ministry of Justice consultation published last week – with the figure expected to rise every year. ‘Given the cost and the physical demands the storage of this mass of paper documents presents, the immediate question arises as to whether this material needs to be preserved in paper form indefinitely, or whether a digitised copy of a will would suffice and is of equivalence in legal terms,' the consultation asks. 

Should the government move to digital-only copies of original wills, the paper version would be retained for 25 years, the consultation states. Wills of famous people would be preserved in paper form for historic interest. The government has asked for suggestions on what criteria should be adopted to identify famous or historic figures whose paper wills should be preserved permanently. National Archives preserves the paper wills of famous people who died before 1858, when the Probate Registry system was established, including those of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

While the reforms could be achieved by amending primary legislation set out in the Senior Courts Act 1981, which would be subject to greater parliamentary scrutiny, the government favours implementing changes through secondary legislation under the Electronic Communications Act 2000.

The plans have already sparked controversy.

On deciding criteria for identifying important figures whose paper wills should be retained, historian Richard Evans told the Guardian: ‘Fifty years ago, who would have thought that Mary Seacole was important or that her will worth preserving?’

Seacole was a Jamaican-born nurse who overcame racism and injustice to nurse soldiers during the Crimean war. Her statue – the first statue of a named black woman in the UK – was unveiled in 2016 outside St Thomas’ Hospital.

‘People who are now thought of as obscure will become famous in the future because what we consider important changes over time,’ Evans said.

The consultation closes on 23 February.


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