10:23, May 02 184 0 theguardian.com

2020-05-02 10:23:04
Make bedside oral wills legal during pandemic, UK campaigners urge

Oral wills should be made legal during the coronavirus pandemic in the same way that they are permitted in times of war, say campaigners.

Ministers are being urged to relax the laws on the creation of wills, using emergency powers that they put in place as the pandemic took hold. The demand comes amid concerns that the current rules, which say that wills must be made in writing and signed by two independent witnesses, have become impractical and unrealistic with the country in lockdown.

Oral wills are already allowed in some US states and other countries, but the laws governing wills in England and Wales are contained in a statute dating back almost 200 years. Calls for a relaxation of the rules are being supported by Gina Miller, the businesswoman known for her court case opposing Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament, and by Baroness Kennedy, a prominent human rights advocate.

Miller, who has also launched a secure online platform where the public will be able to leave private messages for loved ones during the pandemic, said: “We cannot allow existing rules about the drafting and witnessing of wills, which are sensible and proportionate in peacetime, to preclude people making adequate provision for those they leave behind. If ever there was a practical problem that cried out for government attention, for their humanity, this is surely it. There may be those who say oral wills will be open to abuse, but modern technology allows encryption and other online security measures, to address and minimise these risks.”

Kennedy said: “We should learn lessons from the bedside wills that an earlier generation of heroes were able to benefit from during the second world war. This generation is no less valiant, or deserving of the dignity and peace of mind that putting their affairs in order will bring.”

Current rules require that a will should be witnessed by two people who are not its beneficiaries – a provision that is difficult to meet with many of the most vulnerable people restricted to their homes. The Wills Act 1837 contains provisions for the ‘privileged will’, which allows members of the armed forces to draw up a document quickly in an emergency – in these circumstances, they are allowed to make a written or oral will, without witnesses.

The Ministry of Justice is now said to be looking at a temporary relaxation of the rules, which could entail a reduction in the number of witnesses, or other solutions, such as video witnessing.

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