X Close

Why is the Ministry of Justice destroying paper wills?

Will physical archives become a thing of the past? Credit: Getty

December 18, 2023 - 1:00pm

The Ministry of Justice has begun consultation on digitising its archive of historic wills dating back more than 150 years — and destroying the paper one. 

Currently, according to the MoJ, historic wills are kept in a physical archive at a cost of £4.5m a year. Requesting access is a laborious process that involves finding the paper copy and making a digital version, potentially taking weeks. Digitisation will, the department claims, make access to documents quicker and easier for historians, while saving the taxpayer money on an ever-growing paper archive, most of whose contents are never viewed again.

In turn, this offers an insight into the distinct ways we think about digital as opposed to paper archiving. In the physical world, one can’t just go on accumulating stuff forever: for historians, there is of course an interest in preserving everything, but with physical documents eventually space forces the issue. Digital archives, though, are theoretically limitless, which holds out the enticing prospect that we could actually keep everything and never need to think through where to draw the line. 

What was most striking about the MoJ’s social media video on digitising the archived wills, though, was the sense of self-deception at work. The archivist promised that once scanned, the documents will be “preserved forever”. But this seems, to put it mildly, optimistic. File formats change rapidly, and decay of digital archives is a well-recognised problem, that for example the Long Now Foundation wrote on recently.

Nor is technological change the only threat. Think of the British Library, whose digital services have been inaccessible since a hacking attack several weeks ago. Digital libraries are considerably more vulnerable than their paper equivalents to attack and destruction. Should something unthinkably apocalyptic happen to our current civilisation, a paper library would surely be more likely to remain usable in the long term than a hard drive. 

Digital collections are also more vulnerable to censorship and alteration: Amazon already forces politically correct updates to ebook texts, something obviously not possible with a printed book. It doesn’t take much thought to grasp the destabilising effect total digitisation would have — indeed, is already having — on our trust in the security of the written word. 

The proposal, then, is to digitise a whole archive and then destroy everything older than 25 years, with possible exceptions made for famous people’s wills. The promise is that the rest will be digitally “preserved forever”. Other types of court document have a shorter time limit on preservation: bankruptcy cases, for instance, are kept for 20 years and then destroyed. 

But if MoJ officials really wanted the archive to survive, they would keep it in a lower-tech form. In practice, the proposal seemingly amounts to shifting from a permanent to a time-limited archive in the case of wills, to save money, while consoling history-hoarders with the chimera of digital “preservation”. It would also avoid the unthinkably gargantuan task of reviewing the whole collection in order to judge whether or not individual items are worth preserving.

In effect, digitisation is a method of simulating archival practice, while also avoiding one of its central tasks: curation. We can argue about how much this matters, in the case of historic wills, but we should be cautious about extending this practice of indiscriminately replacing low-tech printed material with much more vulnerable digital archives. Digitisation looks, on the surface, like a way of expanding the scope of what we can “preserve”. Really, though, it may turn out to have been a means of expanding the scope of what we have given ourselves permission to forget.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

moveincircles

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

8 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Martin Terrell
MT
Martin Terrell
4 months ago

In the context of what Government spends, £4.5 million to store our collective Will records doesn’t seem unreasonable. The cost should also be covered by probate fees, where what you pay should cover the cost of storing the original. At the end of the day, our Will records are a collective store of our last wishes. The real documents, or knowing that the real documents are still there, makes them tangible, rather like family photographs. The ones in the album are the ones we will keep. I don’t expect this to be rational, but ‘digitisation’ represents the march of progress, economy, technlogy, the digital over the analogue. Can we not just let some things, like our last wills, to be left in peace.

Laura Creighton
LC
Laura Creighton
4 months ago

New business opportunity for the ransomware criminals. Maybe the MoJ should talk to the British Library.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
4 months ago

Fascinating insight into the issues that the Long Now Foundation (LNF) were starting to consider a quarter of a century ago. The link the author provides is well worth reading.
Interesting also that the LNF have started to use a date format with years beginning with zero, e.g. 02023. Some might consider this an affectation, and no doubt in ordinary circumstances it’s not something that’s going to be introduced. It does, however, present (at least) two issues.
Should we fail to use it, will digital archives after the year 9999 CE become difficult to interpret? It’s a bit like the Year 2000 scare which, of course, didn’t materialise but it does at least foresee the potential for that issue – which is still an almost unimaginable way off… which leads to the second issue.
By introducing the concept of our species (or its future iterations) being around in another 8 millennia, a perspective is provided which seeks to suggest we just might be, which is something i believe is worth doing.

Andrew Buckley
AB
Andrew Buckley
4 months ago

Well I had no idea that my Mum and Dad’s Last Will and Testament’s were kept in an archive somewhere! I simply assumed that after probate they disappeared (in the bin probably).

Dougie Undersub
DU
Dougie Undersub
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

You can request a copy of your parents’ wills, or indeed anybody else’s, for a nominal sum. Mrs U does it quite often for family history purposes.

David Barnett
DB
David Barnett
4 months ago

Yes, digitise for ease of access and reference, but always keep the physical, human readable original for reference and deterrence to digital forgery.

miss pink
MP
miss pink
4 months ago

If the documents are stored using a coherent system why does it take weeks to find a requested will? I thought creating and maintaining such systems were why we have librarians and archivists. Not related to wills, but here in New Zealand I recently found out that medical records are usually only kept for about 10 years which caused problems for my son who needed assessments and medical history to prove that he had received treatment before in a bid to avoid having to wait 18 months in a queue to access medication.

William Shaw
WS
William Shaw
4 months ago

Hand it all over to the Mormons.
They preserve everything.