There is still time to #SaveOurWills


22 February 2024
11.59pm Friday 23rd February 2024 is the deadline by which we can submit our responses to the Ministry of Justice consultation paper. This is the paper proposing the digitisation and destruction of the wills of England and Wales from 12 January 1858 onwards. There is still time for you to voice your view. Thank you to everyone who has submitted theirs already.

Together we are stronger

  • As David Annal says on his blog, 'together we are stronger'. To read David's views, please see here.
  • To read Richard Holt's coverage see here.
  • To read the views of major UK family history organisations on the subject of the proposed destruction of the wills, please see here.
  • To read AGRA's response see here (the press release from AGRA will download as a pdf).
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Sign the petition

If you are a British citizen (living anywhere in the world) or a UK resident – you can sign Richard Holt's petition - see here.
Your voice counts: At the time of writing (22 Feb 2024) 14,042 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. You have until 9 July 2024 to sign the petition

PRIORITY - How to make your response:

The deadline by which you need to submit your response to the MoJ consultation is 11.59pm Fri 23 February.

Please send your response to:
Will Storage consultation
Postpoint 5.25
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.

Thank you 

Thank you to all the Family Tree readers who have signed Richard Holt's petition and submitted a response. We include the response by Family Tree reader Alison, below, as a thoughtful and interesting example. 

To read a copies of other Family Tree reader responses, please use the links below - they will each download as a Word document.

Hilary (New Zealand)

Derek (Wiltshire)

P Cope (UK)

DCPR  (Wimbledon)

Helen Tovey (Editor of Family Tree)

Family Tree reader Alison's response

Dear Sirs

I am writing as a private citizen with a passion for family history in regard to your consultation to destroy wills currently held. I would like my views to be considered within the consultation process.

Storage and retention of original will documents

Question 1: Should the current law providing for the inspection of wills be preserved?

Yes. Wills are highly personal documents, providing a unique insight into our forebears lives and wishes. They often provide insight that is not available from any other sources. 

They are not only a direct, tangible link to that ancestor, but a unique part of the material culture of England and Wales in the era in which they were written. 

Question 2: Are there any reforms you would suggest to the current law enabling wills to be inspected?

In addition to the purposes outlined in Point 18 of your consultation, access should be open to all interested parties, and the value of wills to researchers, academics and private individuals for genealogical study purposes should be acknowledged and supported.

Question 3: Are there any reasons why the High Court should store original paper will documents on a permanent basis, as opposed to just retaining a digitised copy of that material?

In point 2 of your consultation, you assert that digitising wills provides "an equally efficient" alternative to original documents. Sadly, this is a erroneous view.

The genealogical community around the world are probably one of the largest users of digitised records, billions of which have been digitised for family history purposes.

These digitisation processes have been developed by highly experienced, professional, well-funded organisations, using the most up to date equipment available. 

Nevertheless, not one of these digitised data sets has been 100% successful in capturing all the data. Even with the best protocols in place, errors and gaps in coverage  occur. 

Once you have destroyed the original documents, there is no way to return and correct your shortcomings. 

Digitisation has been transformational for family historians across the world over the past 20 years, and I am a strong supporter of this movement, but it is NOT a green light to destroy original documents.

I think that you need to seriously heed the huge body of experience that lies within the professional and amateur genealogical community regarding this crucial point. 

In addition, physical documents are a crucial part of the material culture, and destroying this document collection sets a frightening precedent for the destruction of other collections.

Furthermore, you have no way to know that the format into which you plan to digitise the will documents will remain accessible as technology advances in the years ahead.

If you had made this move in the era of floppy disc storage, - now redundant technology - you would now be the proud owners of a set of completely stranded assets, with no recourse to access the original documents to repeat the digitisation exercise. 

Question 4: Do you agree that after a certain time original paper documents (from 1858 onwards) may be destroyed (other than for famous individuals)? Are there any alternatives, involving the public or private sector, you can suggest to their being destroyed?

No, I do not agree. Would you suggest destroying other historic record collections just because a set time period had elapsed ? 

Would you suggest shredding the Magna Carta because we now have parliamentary laws which have superseded it ?  Or pulping the charters granted to towns and boroughs in the medieval period, because boundaries have changed ? 

Historic value does not diminish over time, but increases as the insight into the past becomes more valuable.

If you do not want to store them at the MoJ, then you should allocate adequate budget and resources to transfer them to The National Archives or other institutions who hold the Ecclesiastical Court wills deposited prior to 1858. 

Might the main commercial genealogical businesses be interested in licensing and carrying out digitisation of the wills as part of the transfer process ?

They are highly experienced in digitisation procedures and have cooperated with public bodies on data sets such as the censuses previously,  and the proceeds of this exercise might provide funding towards such a transfer ?

Question 5: Do you agree that there is equivalence between paper and digital copies of wills so that the ECA 2000 can be used?

Whilst you may point to equivalence of access to the content of the physical and digitised wills, for factual record checking for legal purposes, this does not represent an equivalence for other dimensions such as the material cultural value of the original document. Please also see my points about errors and gaps in digitisation exercises and the risks of stranded assets as tech evolves.

Question 6: Are there any other matters directly related to the retention of digital or paper wills that are not covered by the proposed exercise of the powers in the ECA 2000 that you consider are necessary?

You have completely failed to address the needs of the genealogical community in your consultation, both in your understanding of the importance and value of wills to this group and by not including the leading bodies in this sector in your list of organisations to whom the consultation was sent. 

Question 7: If the Government pursues preserving permanently only a digital copy of a will document, should it seek to reform the primary legislation by introducing a Bill or do so under the ECA 2000?

This is academic, you shouldn't be destroying the wills in the first place !

Question 8: If the Government moves to digital only copies of original will documents, what do you think the retention period for the original paper wills should be? Please give reasons and state what you believe the minimum retention period should be and whether you consider the Government’s suggestion of 25 years to be reasonable.

You shouldn't be destroying wills of any age, and certainly 25 years is a very short-termist view based on your complete lack of appreciation of the needs of the genealogical community. 

The ability to research back many generations is critical to the study of family history, and 25 years is barely a third of one lifespan ! 

It also fails to appreciate the rate at which technology changes. You have no idea what tech may be available in 10, 20 or 50 years time. 

For example, when Tutankhamen's tomb was uncovered 100 years ago,  it was felt that unwrapping mummified bodies was the only route to understanding more about them. 

No-one then could have envisaged the sophisticated scanning and Ancient DNA techniques available to us now. 

Equally, no-one 20 years ago could have envisaged the availability and consequences of individuals access to personalised DNA testing and multi-million global DNA databases capable of establishing familial relationships across the world. 

My point is that you have no idea what tech may emerge and how these documents could be interpreted by researchers in the decades ahead, and this adds weight to the fact that willful destruction (pun intended!) is not a sound decision.

Question 9: Do you agree with the principle that wills of famous people should be preserved in the original paper form for historic interest?

This concept is fundamentally flawed as well. Who is to say what fame is and who is famous ?

Working in the MoJ, you may consider someone famous for being an innovator or pioneer in the legal sphere - but half the population may never have heard of that person - and this would apply to every niche in society. 

My concept of who is famous would be different to everyone else's value judgement. 

Equally, are people only of significance if they had some sort of "fame" or notoriety in their own lifetime ? 

Some people become of key interest to researchers, or even the wider public, by their association with later generations.

Who are you to say which of those wills may belong to the ancestor of someone who becomes a Prime Minister, Lord Chief Justice,  mass murderer, pioneer Martian-community founder or scientist who finds the cure for cancer ?

Question 10: Do you have any initial suggestions on the criteria which should be adopted for identifying famous/historic figures whose original paper will document should be preserved permanently?

Fame is a highly ambiguous, arbitrary and often ephemeral concept, and I suggest that it not something that you would want to be involved in defining.

You would be on a hiding to nothing, open yourselves up to a storm of criticism and end up pleasing no-one !

Question 11: Do you agree that the Probate Registries should only permanently retain wills and codicils from the documents submitted in support of a probate application? Please explain, if setting out the case for retention of any other documents.

For all the reasons outlined above, I believe that all documents that allow us insight into previous generations lives should be retained in perpetuity.

I hope this outlines my views in the way required to be included in your consultation process and hope that you will listen to and benefit from the expertise and knowledge of the genealogical community, to decide not to proceed with the destruction of these valuable documents, but to find a mutually satisfactory home for them in perpetuity.  

Your faithfully