“Quiet diplomacy is the key”

March 28, 2023

CEO Matthew Lagden gives us an insight into the ILM’s relationship with the Probate Registry and the work it is doing behind the scenes to ensure charities actually receive the legacies they are left

Every month, the ILM sits down (either virtually or physically) along with Remember A Charity and Smee & Ford, together with the Probate Registry, to chew over the state of the nation. Or, more correctly, I should say the state of current probate service levels. No-one could disagree that the last two or three years have been a challenging time for all of us and, as well as the working changes wrought by the pandemic, civil servants have had to manage all the political ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ too.

Like all government departments, they have had a lot to deal with and, given the many demands on time, budgets and resources, I would like to applaud them for the admirable way they have continued to serve our sector.

As an organisation at the heart of the legacy profession, we count ourselves very fortunate to have such a strong working relationship with the Probate Registry team and the wider His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

The ability to openly discuss the issues some of our members raise – or indeed ones that we become aware of ourselves – is a privilege that we don’t take lightly.

As specialists in this environment, we can shine a wider light on some things that may be ‘under the radar’ and ensure that the needs of the charity sector are high on the priority list of decision makers at HMCTS and the Scottish Courts Service.

What is particularly important is that it is very much a two-way relationship. By this, I mean that if we have a particular concern, we are able to raise it and seek their guidance.

The fact that the Probate Registry team takes time to consider our views and above all, listen to what we have to say, is a valuable resource. Both for us as a professional organisation and for our members.

There may not always be quick answers or solutions that meet with unanimous approval, but our views are taken into account and in turn, this helps HMCTS understand what is happening ‘on the ground’.

We were pleased to hear recently that Probate Registry staffing levels have been increased – improvements won’t happen overnight as training needs to be put in place, but the best news is that we know it is happening and can see waiting times, for Probate applications to be both received and dealt with, will come down in due course.

We are fortunate in England and Wales that the legacy sector – and especially charities – are undoubtedly benefiting from the Probate Registry’s pre-pandemic digitisation programme.

An estimated 90% of matters are now dealt with online, avoiding lengthy paper trails and increasing efficiency and accountability – something I think is quite remarkable, especially in the face of everything else that has been going on.

For charities in England and Wales, that means being able to take advantage of the excellent service provided by Smee & Ford which notifies them if they have been named in an individual’s will. It took willingness to change on the part of both the Probate Registry and Smee & Ford for that service to continue operating – so full marks all round.

I think it is generally accepted that, without it, charities may otherwise miss out on legacies which are due to them. After all, if an organisation doesn’t know a gift is owed to them, they will be none the wiser if it doesn’t arrive.

North of the border, the situation with the Scottish Probate Registry is not so straightforward as, since March 2019, Smee & Ford’s notification service in Scotland has been suspended for both practical and financial reasons.

This has led to concerns that many charities may be missing out on potential legacies. Figures show that on average, Scottish estates overall will likely raise around £240 million in legacy income annually for distribution to charities UK-wide.

We believe that having an affordable and efficient notification service is the best way for charities to be made aware of the monies they will be due, and we are working alongside Smee & Ford, Remember A Charity and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising Scotland, to try and find a way forward. Indications are that there is a willingness to do so.

As one of my colleagues said: ‘we have the opportunity to help save hundreds of millions of pounds for charity and finding a solution could be one of the most impactful things we do’.

I agree wholeheartedly and it brings me back to where I started…that channel of quiet diplomacy. You won’t see us banging tables, but you will see us working quietly away on behalf of our legacy sector with the end game in mind.

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