Storing wills: Digitisation in modern times

The Ministry of Justice is consulting on proposals to digitise its archive of historic wills and destroy millions of wills in the process.

These changes form part of a wider move towards modernising the Probate Registry which began with the launch of the online application process in 2020.

What are the current provisions?

At present, all wills filed with probate applications are retained in a physical archive, which according to the Ministry of Justice costs in the region of £4.5 million a year.

The archives dating back to 1850 are estimated to hold more than 110 million physical documents, and of course this number is constantly rising.

What are the new proposals?

The consultation launched in December 2023 puts forward a case to make changes to the current archiving process.

The Ministry of Justice has proposed to store original wills for a period of 25 years. There are of course exceptions to this, particularly in the case of preserving wills of historical figures. 

The new proposals are considered to offer a more streamlined service to accessing wills whilst providing a significant saving towards the rising costs of archiving documents. The proposals also suggest a rolling programme to digitise all older wills, to enable these to be easily viewed online. 

Justice Minister Mike Freer said: “Historic wills can provide us with a unique window into the past and we want to make it as easy for amateur and professional historians alike to access these documents. 

"Digitalisation allows us to move with the times and save the taxpayer valuable money, while preserving paper copies of noteworthy wills which hold historical importance.”

While having easy access to historic records could be beneficial in a number of ways, there are concerns as to whether solely relying on digital copies would be sufficient for the majority of these documents.  Furthermore, there are queries as to which wills should be deemed ‘noteworthy’ enough to justify preservation of the original.

On the other hand, our lives are increasing lived online and digitisation is becoming the norm. In 2023 the Law Commission even consulted on the possibility of making digital wills – so perhaps the question of whether hard copies should be retained will become academic!

Expressing your views

You can make your views known by e-mailing [email protected]

The consultation ends on Friday 23 February 2024.

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