How The Pandemic Has Accelerated The Digitalisation Of The Probate Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have accelerated a shift to digitalisation among sectors that were previously resistant to such changes, such as probate genealogy.

Philip Turvey, executive director at Anglia Research, explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitalisation of legal practices.

While there has been a very rapid uptake in digital solutions in the legal world within the last five years, with lots of disruptor start-ups shaking up their field, some legal practices, such as probate genealogy, still follow quite a technical, non-digital process. A lot of this is due to the type of work carried out by probate genealogists.

Probate genealogy – more commonly known as heir hunting – is the practice of investigating family trees, finding heirs and proving their right to an inheritance if someone has not only died intestate, which accounts for roughly 1 in 3 deaths in the UK at the moment, but also where they have no known next-of-kin.

As a result, the genealogical investigation can often involve sifting through and checking masses of historical records, including birth, death, and marriage certificates, drawing up the deceased’s family tree and identifying the next-of-kin. However, the pandemic changed all of this, with the lockdowns forcing the industry to adapt far quicker than it ever could imagine.

How sectors across the economy adapted

Sectors across the economy faced a similar challenge. Take estate agencies, for example, firms across the country, such as Maskells and Strutt & Parker, had to pivot during the first lockdown to offer virtual property tours to prospective buyers who couldn’t physically attend viewings.

Similar adaptability was evident in criminal and civil courts across the UK. Before the pandemic, the UK court system used the Justice Video Service in criminal courts and could offer audio hearings in civil courts. However, after the first lockdown started on 23rd March 2020, the UK greatly expanded this existing technology and incorporated teleconferencing services, such as BTMeetMe, and videoconferencing services, such as Skype for Business, into their capabilities. The result was a court system that didn’t completely collapse under the pressures of COVID-19. And it is this adaptability that is most similar to the changes we saw in the probate genealogy sector.

The future of the probate genealogy sector

Like the court system, we have used videoconferencing and other digital services to correspond and engage with our clients. These changes enabled us to avoid any potential backlog of cases caused by the pandemic. Our FOI report, which surveyed all local authorities in England and Wales, found the number of will-less deaths, where councils became responsible for arranging a public health funeral as a result of there being no relatives,rose by 60% between March and May last year. Furthermore, 12% of councils reported handling such matters for the first time. Similarly, our Unclaimed Estates Index found there were 216 and 176 unclaimed estates in Birmingham and Camden, respectively, in December 2020.

However, partly as a result of the digital practices put in place during the pandemic, the number of unclaimed estates has greatly reduced. Our most recent Unclaimed Estates Index in June this year found that the number of unclaimed estates in Birmingham and Camden had dropped to 187 and 131.

The pandemic has irreversibly changed all our lives, and as we begin the long road to normality, businesses face the question of what COVID-19 necessitated changes do we keep or lose. For probate genealogy, the pandemic has shown that some of our processes can be streamlined, simplified, and conducted online.

Streamlining practices is something happening across the legal sector at the moment, with the Ministry of Justice recently turning to the National Archives to set up a new comprehensive and free online repository of court judgements from England and Wales. However, this doesn’t mean that all practices need to change. For Anglia Research, studying physical records is an area of the sector we are experts in, and it would be nullified if we shifted to a total digital-first approach.

It is in this middle ground that the future of the probate genealogy sector lies. We must blend the new practices put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic with the old ways of studying physical records. Although we may not have expected it, the partial shift to digital will help the sector assist lawyers, trustees and local authorities and help us to crack our genealogical investigations.

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