Lawyers have welcomed yesterday’s government’s decision to renew the temporary legislation allowing for the remote witnessing of wills for another two years.
Introduced in September 2020 as a pandemic measure – backdated to 31 January that year, the date of the first confirmed coronavirus case in the UK – the change will now continue until 31 January 2024.
The extension gives the Law Commission more time to report on potential reforms to the law of wills, including whether to make this change permanent.
It means the requirement that a will is made “in the presence of” at least two witnesses will continue to include those witnessing remotely, as long as the quality of the sound and video is sufficient to see and hear what is happening.
However, the ban on electronic signatures will continue due to the risks of undue influence or fraud.
The Ministry of Justice cited Law Society research last year that found around 14% of legal professionals who had been involved in making a will since the change had used made use of it.
The Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab, said: “This is a common-sense measure that will give vulnerable people peace of mind that their wills are recognised if they are forced to have them witnessed via video due to isolation.”
Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said: “Solicitors have bent over backwards to ensure their clients have been able to make valid wills despite the restrictions during the pandemic.
“Those who have used video witnessing have told us it has been a useful option to have: to help vulnerable people set their affairs in order when making a will in the physical presence of witnesses is not possible.”
But she said the society’s view was that the most effective reform would be to give judges powers to recognise the deceased’s intentions even where their will may not have been witnessed in line with the Wills Act, so their estate was inherited as they intended.
Emily Deane, technical counsel and head of government relations at the Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners, added: “We welcome this announcement because it gives clarity to everyone involved in the process of witnessing wills.
“While we agree that video technology should remain a last resort, it is vital that anyone who is required to isolate can arrange their will and has peace of mind that it is legally valid.”
The Law Society research found that 78% of solicitors who used remote witnesses reported either a positive or neutral experience, while 58% said they would use remote witnessing if it continued to be an option after the pandemic.
Respondents cited a heightened risk of undue influence, future claims and said it was more difficult to assess their client’s capacity to make decisions when the process was conducted remotely.