29 January 2024
The recent Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) announcement late 2023, of a consultation paper proposing the destruction of archival will records, has met with widespread consternation across the genealogy community. To follow we share a collection of views, from major UK genealogy organisations and a selection of leading UK genealogists, about the MoJ proposals. We also share details of the petition to #SaveOurWills and information as to how you may voice your opinions.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consultation paper, published 15 December 2023, proposed the digitisation of the England and Wales collection of wills from 12 January 1858 onwards – and the destruction of the will documents after 25 years, citing heavy storage costs as the driver for this move.
This proposal to destroy such a collection has met with extreme shock and in many instances horror by the genealogy community, of more below.
There is something (or rather four things) that you can do about it however.
How you can help
1. Get informed:
The 32-page consultation paper, issued on 15 December, on the storage and retention of original will documents may be read here: www.gov.uk/government/consultations/storage-and-retention-of-original-will-documents.
2. Share the #SaveOurWills news:
Time is of the essence. You can help to share news of the petition, started by professional genealogist Richard Holt, to #SaveOurWills. You can find details of it here.
3. Sign the petition:
If you are a British citizen (living anywhere in the world) or a UK resident – you can sign the petition - see here.
Your voice counts: At the time of writing (25 Jan 2024) 10,171 signatures had been pledged. This was a crucial milestone – as once 10,000 signatures have been made then the Government will respond to the petition. The next milestone is 100,000. Once that many British citizens or UK residents have signed it, then the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.
Respond to the consultation by email or letter, using the contact details (see below) to voice your views wherever you live on the globe.
To follow are views and comments from spokespeople from leading UK family history related organisations, and professional and individual family historians.
‘A dangerous precedent’
Dr David Wright, MA, FSA, FSG, FHG, Principal, The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, writes:
“The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies views with great alarm the current proposal to jettison an entire series of national records. Wills are the most intimate of genealogical records, often recording thoughts, feelings and wishes expressed nowhere else in a testator’s life.
“It has also been stated that selected famous persons’ original wills are to be retained, but who is to say who tomorrow’s famous people will be?
“A dangerous precedent is being set: the entire PCC PROB11 class [The registered copy wills of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1384-1858] is digitised and online – should The National Archives now rid itself of all the wills in that vast series?
“The present and still ongoing unavailability of the British Library online catalogue [https://blogs.bl.uk/living-knowledge/2023/11/cyber-incident.html] should act as a terrible warning for those who seek to overturn what has worked so well for so long.”
‘A flawed plan’
Tahitia McCabe, Head of Strathclyde Institute for Genealogical Studies (SIGS), welcomes the proposed digitisation, but not at the expense of the original documents:
“Wills provide crucial information on family members and their relationships that are often missing in other documents so we welcome the proposal to digitise and make these records more easily accessible to researchers around the world.
“However, the plan to destroy the original documents is flawed. We have experienced many issues with poorly reproduced records rendering them unusable and when the physical document is gone, there is no option to re-scan.
“Also, the document as artifact is important; the type of paper, ink and other possible additions to the record provide much information to the reader.”
‘A total disregard for the historical [...] value of the documents’
Toni Sutton, Chairperson, Register of Qualified Genealogists, fears that a lack of understanding of the value of the historic records may have led to the MoJ’s proposal:
“The Register of Qualified Genealogists is completely opposed to the proposed destruction of post-1858 Wills as put forward by the Ministry of Justice in December 2023.
“The proposals contain contradictions and misleading statements, which demonstrate a lack of understanding that is based on flawed principles, along with a total disregard for the historical, social and legacy value of the documents.
“We are currently canvassing our membership for their views and will collate the replies to make a formal RQG response to the Ministry in due course ahead of the deadline of 23 February 2024. You can read more about this here: www.qualifiedgenealogists.org/RQGNews/general/the-proposed-destruction-of-post-1858-wills
“Meanwhile, we would encourage everyone to sign the parliamentary petition opposing the proposals.”
‘Do not agree to legislative changes that would allow the destruction of these documents’
Richard Holt, professional genealogist, AGRA (Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives) Member, launched the #SaveOurWills petition on 9 January 2024.
In the petition he urges: “We call for the original documents to be preserved in perpetuity in line with current legislation. Do not agree to legislative changes that would allow the destruction of these documents.”
[Editor’s note: Page 10 of the consultation paper, point 5: “The consultation also asks consultees how the legislation should be amended if the decision is to move to digital-only preservation of wills, with the two options being a change made via the Electronic Communications Act 2000 (using secondary legislation) or pursuing primary legislative reform in a Bill before Parliament.”]
Richard Holt argues:
1. We think costs of digital preservation and storage could be astronomical.
2. The loss of digital files may be more likely than the loss of physical documents, for example via file corruption and cyber attacks.
3. Flaws and errors made during the digitisation process may happen.
4. The proposed changes to legislation may set a detrimental precedent for the destruction of other archive collections.
5. Physical documents provide additional information, such as the materiality of the documents.
Richard has also made a FOI (Freedom of Information) request for ‘minutes of meetings’ and costs mentioned by the MoJ in the consultation paper regarding the storage of the wills. You may view the response here: www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/information_on_consultation_stor#incoming-2519251
‘A new dark age’
Linda Newey BA DipGen QG, Tutor of Pharos’ online Genealogy course ‘Wills and Administrations; the riches of probate records’, fears that:
“The destruction of post-1858 wills of England and Wales is shortsighted, with the potential to herald a new dark age. The wilful destruction of any historical record is not a sign of an advanced, inclusive society; and how the records of the past are treated, is a barometer of whether a society is civilised.
“It’s concerning that those from the genealogical world have not been explicitly consulted by the MoJ [the consulation paper was circulated to 23 organisations comprising largely legal organisations, some historical organisations, but no specifically genealogical ones]. Particularly when, according to the MoJ, some of the wills have already been digitised, and no doubt been funded by purchases made by family historians and genealogists alike.
“The single most often quoted piece of advice for any family historian or genealogist is always to ‘view the original record’. This opportunity will be lost with the wilful destruction of post-1858 wills, particularly when the process of digitisation could result in missing pages and transcription errors. To suggest it’s okay to destroy any original record after digitisation is a dangerous precedent, especially as no digitisation project can be 100% effective.
“How can the suggestion that digital documents will replace original records be sensible, when it still remains uncertain how to store, archive and retrieve contemporary digitally produced material for the future? There remains the problem of whether technology is suitably flexible to do so, and we only have to consider how recent technological developments made floppy discs redundant, to know that no one single method of storing information can be certain to survive.
“And as for those selected wills deemed suitable to keep, who decides the definition of being famous, and what happens to those who become famous after the wills are destroyed It’s elitist to suggest that only the wills of those who are ‘famous’ are worthy of saving. Wills are a precious record for not only the wealthy, but also those of more modest means. Wills are unique in providing information about our ancestors, their lives, their status in society, their family and social connections and so much more. There is a very real threat that by destroying these post-1858 wills, the records of ordinary folk will be lost, and effectively airbrushed from history.”
‘Will the digital images be accessible in 100 years?’
David Annal, professional genealogist, Lifelinesresearch.co.uk, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Genealogists values the use of digitisation, but questions to what extent the format is future-proof:
“The MoJ’s proposals, if allowed to proceed, would set a dangerous precedent. Digitisation of documents has had an enormous impact in all areas of historical research allowing historians easy access to key sources of information while at the same time, protecting the documents themselves from the wear and tear which regular use would otherwise lead to.
“What digitisation can never do is replace the originals. One thing that the experience of twenty five years or so of digitisation projects has taught us all is that it appears to be impossible to capture 100% of the original documents – at least in a form in which all parts of every page are fully legible. It’s inevitable that mistakes will be made and that some documents will be missed during the digitisation process. And this is simply unacceptable.
“There are also serious concerns about the digital technology that would be used to ‘archive’ the images both from the point of view of digital security and the question of future access. The oldest of the paper copies have already survived for over 150 years. Can they guarantee that the digital images will be similarly accessible to users in 20, 50 or 100 years?”
‘Vandalism! Digitising documents is very useful, but...’
Stuart Raymond, author of The Wills of Our Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians writes:
“Vandalism! Digitising documents is very useful, but that does NOT give a licence to destroy them. There are likely to be many occasions when it is necessary to consult the originals.
“I have had cause to do so when consulting digitised wills. Old handwriting is not always readable in digitised format. The camera may not lie, but it does miss documents. What happens if the digitised record is accidentally lost?
“This reminds me of other historic instances of similar vandalism, for example, the destruction of poll books by the Crown Office in 1907, and the pulping of the Irish censuses of 1881 and 1891 during the First World War.
“Don’t do it!”
The 11 MoJ questions
Within the 32 MoJ consultation pages are a list of questions. Providing answers to as many of these questions as you can will provide you with a solid response for you to email or send by letter to the contact details provided below.
‘We have concerns’
A spokesperson for the British Association for Local History (BALH) stated: “As the national charity for local history we have concerns about the proposal and are preparing a full response.”
‘Show a united front against this ill-considered proposal’
Natalie Pithers, Co-CEO of the Society of Genealogists (SoG), writes: “SoG have serious concerns regarding this proposal as outlined in our draft response to the consultation [See https://www.sog.org.uk/news/moj-will-consultation-response].
“We have started receiving comments from the genealogy community and are incorporating their feedback into our final version. Please do read our draft and let us know your thoughts.
“Whilst we are making a formal response on behalf of the genealogical community, we encourage everyone (institutions and individuals) to submit their own response. The family history community is a passionate one, let’s show a united front to convince the government that this is an ill-considered proposal.”
How to make your response:
Please send your response to:
Will Storage consultation
Ministry of Justice
102 Petty France
London SW1H 9AJ
Email: [email protected]
The 10-week consultation period closes 23 February 2024, so they will need to receive your response by then.
Organisations from the genealogy community will also be making formal responses; David Annal is welcoming comments and points raised on the topic at his blog (lifelinesresearch.com) as he is working on a co-ordinated response; and Family Tree will also be contributing a response. See our website for updates: www.family-tree.co.uk/news
15 December 2023 – MoJ consultation paper published.
23 February 2024 – the consultation period closes.
31 May 2024 – the MoJ will publish its response at https://consult.justice.gov.uk/
09 July 2024 – the petition deadline.
Share your views
If you’d like to share your views, please email [email protected] – we look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you for reading this and we very much hope you feel able to lend your support to #SaveOurWills.