HL Deb 22 June 1961 vol 232 cc722-6

3.4 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, if the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition asks the chances of this Bill finding its way on to the Statute Book this Session I hope very much that I should not be risking a very great deal if I ventured to give him some assurance to that effect in the affirmative.

This is not a very big Bill, but it is a useful and helpful Bill to a minority of the poorer section of our community. In the last century, when life had begun to become more complicated, it was decided by Parliament that those who sought to obtain representation of the estate of a deceased person which did not amount to more than £300 gross should be able to apply, either in person or through their solicitors, to certain Inland Revenue officers instead of to the Probate Court Registries. That system worked very well. It was brought into operation by the Customs and Inland Revenue Act, 1881, and by the similar Act of 1884. The amount of the estate for which application for grants of representation could be made was enlarged to the sum of £500. Subsequently, in the natural and historical course of events, the Inland Revenue officers who were entitled to receive these applications, became, in fact, Customs and Excise officers. So the system has two considerable advantages in the cases to which they apply.

The first is that there are only 34 Probate Registries in the country, and therefore if an individual wants to make an application for a grant of representation, and is required to apply directly to a Probate Registry, the number of Probate Registries to which he can go is very limited. On the other hand, there are 273 Customs offices dotted about the country, excluding Scotland. This Bill also applies to Scotland, which has 28 Customs and Excise offices of its own. Therefore, for the convenience of the individual who wants to make personal application, or wants to make application through his solicitor, in the case of a small estate there is obviously very great advantage in having a greater number of places to which application can be made. The second advantage, of course, is that the applications can be made direct in person, and, in fact, generally are. If, however, your Lordships accept the principle of this Bill, which is to enlarge again the size of the estate for which this procedure can be used, and it becomes law, it is probable that it will more and more be used by the legal profession, if the legal profession is instructed in regard to the winding up of the estate.

What has happened, of course, is that in the passage of time the value of money has fallen, and an estate of £500 gross is no longer so large as it used to be in 1884. Likewise, as time has gone on, the limit upon estates which have to bear death duties has been raised, and by the Finance Act, 1954, no estate duty is payable on an estate of less than £3,000 net. It has accordingly been considered desirable that the limits of the size of the estates for which this procedure can be used should be raised, and the purport of this Bill is to increase that limit, which it does by Clause 1, to a sum of less than £1,000 net or less than £3,000 gross.

Your Lordships may consider that the difference between the existing figure of £500 and £1,000 is perhaps not sufficient, and that the limit should be raised still further. I would point out to your Lordships, however, that the old limit was £500 gross, whereas the present limit is £1,000 net and that, of course, makes a considerable difference. The limit is also a gross figure of not more than £3,000, and your Lordships will realise that if you get a gross estate of £3,000 which is reduced, owing to debts and so forth, by £2,000, or two-thirds of the estate, there is likely to be complication in the winding up of the estate, and the whole point of this procedure is that it should be very simple. The Customs and Excise officers who receive the application and pass it through to the Probate Registry are not people who are experienced, skilled or educated in the winding up of estates or Probate Law. They have, in any event, the right to decline to receive an application if it appears to them to be a complicated one and to require it to be made to a Probate Registry. The object of this Bill is simply to enlarge the size of the estate which in suitable cases can be the subject of an application for a grant of representation by this very simplified and simple procedure.

Clause 2 deals with the fees involved. I will not take your Lordships into that in detail. Broadly speaking, the fees vary as between Scotland and England at the present time, but they are upon a statutory basis which nowadays is somewhat out of date. The proposal in the Bill, therefore, is that they shall be subject. as are the fees for almost all other purposes in the Judiciary now, to settlement from time to time by virtue of provisions made under the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act, 1925. That is the system which is now generally recognised for purposes such as this and which in consequence is being applied to this Bill.

Clause 3 deals with the date when the Bill, if it passes your Lordships' House and receives the Royal Assent, shall become law, and that in effect is as soon as the necessary machinery can be put into operation. The effect of the Act will be brought into operation by my noble and learned friend upon the Woolsack, acting in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Scotland, by Order. One further point is that the Bill does not apply—and this may strike your Lordships as being an unnecessarily odd provision—to the estates of persons who died before April 10, 1946. The magic of that date is not, as your Lordships might suppose, the fact that it happens to be my birthday. It has greater relevance to the Finance Act which changed the rates of duties at that time. Curiously enough, there is still a small but steady trickle of applications for grants of representation of people who died before that date, and consequently, as the law is to be applied as it was at that time the estates of people who died prior to that date do not fall within the provisions of this Bill.

The only other word I would add is that, as I mentioned just now, this Bill does apply to Scotland. I have not taken your Lordships through the slight variations in detail, though there are no variations in principle, which are applicable to Scotland, because they are of a highly technical character and I am quite sure my noble friends who come from North of the Border would accuse me of having pronounced something the wrong way. I do not think there is any material or significant alteration. So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, this Bill does not itself apply to Northern Ireland but provision is specifically included in it so that in the event of the Parliament of Northern Ireland desiring to apply the provisions of the Bill to Northern Ireland they will be in a position to do so. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Brentford.)


My Lords, I rise for only two purposes; first, to congratulate my noble friend, Lord Brentford, on his introduction of the Bill, and secondly to assure him and the House that it has the cordial support of Her Majesty's Government. There is always room for argument about the financial limits, but in my view they are correctly drawn. It is a matter of judgment, but one of the important factors is that we must not impose upon the officers of the Customs and Excise too great a burden. If the financial limits were any higher than those proposed by the Bill I believe we should be in danger of doing this.

I believe the suggestion has been made that the Bill might encourage unqualified persons to tout for work as advisers to those who make applications before the Customs and Excise officers. The present Non-Contentious Probate Rules prohibit a personal applicant making his application through an agent or being attended by an adviser. In all probability these Rules apply not only to applications made at Probate Registries but also to those made to Customs and Excise officers, and in any event there would be no difficulty in issuing to those officers administrative instructions with similar effect. My Lords, I commend this Bill to your Lordships. I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading, and I am glad to think that its content provides another reason, apart from my old friendship with the noble Lord's father and himself, of wishing him "Many happy returns."

On Question, Bill react 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.