Throughout the year, the legal industry witnessed changes to legislation, consultations to improve processes, and announcements of what to expect in 2024.
As we enter the final month of 2023, we’ve selected 10 news stories that made the headlines within the industry this year.
1. 2023 Autumn Statement
On Wednesday 22 November, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivered the government’s Autumn Statement, confirming upcoming changes to taxation, business rates, and pensions. Despite much speculation over possible cuts to the rate of Inheritance Tax, Mr Hunt made no mention of any changes to the current rate of 40%.
Below is a quick overview of some of the key announcements:
The pensions triple lock – which was introduced in 2010 – will be honoured. This was initially implemented to ensure that the State Pension would rise in line with wage growth and inflation. As a result of this, April 2024’s projected growth figure stands at 8.5% (a rise of £902 over the year).
The Chancellor announced that full expensing has been made permanent. This means that a business can claim back 25p in corporation tax for every £1 invested in IT, machinery, and equipment.
The UK’s National Living Wage will rise from £10.42 per hour to at least £11.44 per hour. The increase is worth up to £1,800 for a full-time worker.
A reform to the National Insurance rates was announced; this includes changes to Class 2 and 4 rates and a reduction of the rate of National Insurance from 12% to 10%, resulting in a £450 per year saving for an individual on an average salary of £35,000.
2. Justice Committee’s inquiry into HMCTS
Due to the Probate Registry’s continued underperformance, which has been causing significant delays to the estate administration process, the government launched an inquiry into the probate service in November 2023. The inquiry follows wider concerns about the support that beneficiaries, Executors, and the bereaved are provided through the service, as well as the level of protection from rogue traders.
The committee welcomes submissions from anyone with answers to the questions in the call for evidence; this includes evidence on capacity, resources, and delays across the probate service, as well as the experienced impact of digitisation and centralisation (including the effectiveness of the online probate portal).
The deadline for evidence is 22 January 2024. Learn more about the call for evidence.
3. The Powers of Attorney Act 2023
A consultation to reform the process of creating Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs) was first introduced in the summer of 2021. It was established to examine the mainly paper-based process of creating and registering LPAs, providing an opportunity to explore how technology could help reform the process of writing, improve access, and speed up the service.
Allow identity checks of those applying for an LPA to prevent fraud.
Pick up on errors earlier and allow these to be fixed online, speeding up the registration time.
Expedite the objection process and widen the group of people who can make an objection.
Allow chartered legal executives to certify copies of LPAs.
However, legal professionals have since shared their concerns over the recent digitisation efforts, citing an increased level of risk for vulnerable individuals and potential delays.
Despite the introduction of digitalisation, the paper process will remain for those unable to use the internet.
4. The Law Commission’s Wills Project consultation
In 2017, The Law Commission published its first consultation paper for the Wills Project reform, considering the need for the protection of vulnerable Testators in relation to the rule that a marriage or civil partnership revokes a Will. This has become even more of a topical subject with concerns of an increase in the number of predatory marriages. The project was paused between 2019 and 2022. However, the past six years have witnessed an increasing recognition of digital documents and signatures; in particular, technology facilitated the Will Writing industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On 5 October 2023, The Law Commission launched its supplementary consultation paper for views on two separate issues: electronic Wills and the rule about marriage or civil partnership revoking an existing Will. It is believed that developments since the time of the first consultation paper in 2017 have shifted consultees’ views on these topics. However, the supplementary paper does not re-examine any of the other issues considered in the 2017 paper, stating that they are unaware of any further developments that would alter the consultees’ views on these topics.
The deadline for the consultation is 8 December 2023. Click here to have your say.
5. Update to the Statutory Legacy Sum
The Statutory Legacy sum was increased from £270,000 to £322,000 on 26 July 2023. Although the next review was scheduled for January 2025, legislation states that if the inflation rate increases by 15% or more from the base rate applicable during the time period the Statutory Legacy was last set, then a review must be carried out.
The sum refers to the amount that the surviving spouse or civil partner of a person who has died intestate can inherit solely. In scenarios where the Deceased had children, 50% of anything in excess of this amount is required to be split between them equally; the remaining 50% will be inherited by the spouse or civil partner.
6. STEP warns the public against ‘cowboy’ Will Writers
According to STEP, grieving families are dealing with the financial and emotional consequences of bad advice given to them by “dishonest, unqualified, and incompetent Will Writers”, costing them millions in extra tax.
In September 2023, STEP – the professional body for inheritance advisers – published a report that draws on the experience of 329 STEP members; the members are mainly based in England and Wales.
Key findings from the report include:
54% of the respondents highlighted concerns about firms advising that Wills lead to increased tax bills.
63% of the respondents have firms that quote a fee for a Will but then have added additional charges not covered in their terms of business.
54% of the respondents know of firms who have made false claims about the Wills they are selling to clients.
3% of the respondents have come across cases where incompetence has led to significant tax bills.
As part of its investigation into the unregulated legal services market, STEP has written to the Competitions and Markets Authority to put a case forward for regulation alongside high-quality training and greater recognition of specialist Will qualifications.
7. Use of electronic Bills in Court of Protection cases
In April of this year, the pilot for the use of electronic bills – which was launched in November 2022 – came to an end and was reported to be a success. According to the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, about 30-40% of Court of Protection Bills are received in electronic form, and the Cost Officers have concluded that the use of the Bill should continue following their assessments.
Following the pilot, the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary stated:
“Professional deputies appointed by the Court of Protection, their legal representatives and other legal professionals involved in Court of Protection cases, may file their bills in respect of general management and other applications where the relevant authority has been obtained from the Court of Protection, in electronic spreadsheet form using the approved template.”
Currently, legal professionals are being directed to use version 2.1 of the COP-E Bill template due to a minor error detected in the 2.0 version. However, the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary website currently states that the Senior Courts Costs Office will continue to accept Bills in the previous format if necessary.
8. Isle of Man’s Assisted Dying Bill
In November 2023, the Assisted Dying Bill 2023 passed its second reading in the House of Keys; the Bill would allow a terminally ill resident of the Isle of Man the right to choose to end their life. Currently, individuals who would be eligible would need to fulfil the following criteria:
Be terminally ill and “reasonably expected” to die within six months
Be over the age of 18
Have lived on the Isle of Man for at least 12 months
Have the legal capacity to make the decision
With the second reading passed, some members of the House of Keys have raised concerns about safeguarding, potential risk of coercion, and eligibility. In particular, some members are concerned that the 12-month residential criteria would need to be extended, sparking fears that this may cause an influx of off-island residents to relocate to the Isle of Man with long-term or terminally ill conditions.
9. Charity legacy giving
During a lecture delivered in November 2023, Orlando Fraser KC, the Chair of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, warned charity Trustees regarding the act of rejecting or returning philanthropic donations without compelling reasons. The “urgent need” for increased funding for the charity sector was also highlighted by Fraser, noting the limited government resource.
The Charity Commission may get involved if Trustees’ motives align more with personal beliefs than the charity’s best interests. However, they generally respect Trustees’ decisions. To provide updated guidance for charities on the acceptance or refusal of donations, the Charity Commission is expected to release further information in early 2024.
10. OPG ends death certification requirements for death verification
In January 2023, the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) removed the requirement of a death certificate in order to verify a death. In its place, the Passport Office’s ‘Life Event Verification’ system can be used, which the OPG states is a “safe and efficient way to confirm deaths”. In some cases, death certification may still be required should issues surrounding the verification of a death arise.
We look forward to monitoring these stories and their developments in the New Year. From the team at Title Research, we would like to extend our gratitude to all our professional clients who have instructed us in 2023 – we look forward to continuing to work with you in the New Year and wish you a wonderful Christmas period.