Local authorities are seeing a substantial increase in the number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from heir tracing companies for information about those who have had public health funerals. Recent appeal decisions from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) may help to stem the tide.
UK intestacy law states that when someone dies with no will or known family, everything they own passes to the Crown as ownerless property (or ‘Bona Vacantia’). This includes their house, money and personal possessions. Companies who find missing heirs are in a very lucrative business (watch “Heir Hunters” on the BBC). Some require beneficiaries to enter into an agreement to share up to 40% of their inheritance.
In England and Wales, the Bona Vacantia Division (BVD) of the Treasury Solicitor’s Department is responsible for dealing with bona vacantia assets. Everyday BVD publishes an Unclaimed Asset List setting out unclaimed estates which have been recently referred, but not yet administered, and historic cases which have not yet been claimed by entitled relatives. Included in the list is the deceased name, area of death, marital status, place of birth and local authority informant. Sometimes other details will be given (if known) such as spouse’s name, place of marriage and nationality. The list is updated every working day and newly advertised estates appear at the top of the list.
This list is a good starting point for probate researchers but the competition to trace beneficiaries is very fierce and often a number of companies will be trying to trace the same person. That is why such companies often make FOI requests to councils to try and get hold of the information before any of it is passed on to the BVD to publish. If they can identify deceased individuals who may have left a substantial estate, they will have a head start (in tracing the beneficiaries) against their rivals who will not yet be privy to such information.
Many councils have chosen to put a lot of this information on their website; Redbridge, Northampton, Knowsley to name a few. This then allows them to claim the exemption under section 21 of FOI (information is reasonably accessible by other means). Often though the researchers want more than the basic information, which is published by councils.
Of course, where the requested information has been disclosed to the BVD (or is about to be disclosed) and it will appear on the published BVD list, it is open to the council to claim the exemption under section 22 (information intended for future publication). It does not matter that the council will not be publishing the information itself as long as there is a settled intention to publish it on the part of another (in this case the BVD). Section 22 is a qualified exemption and so subject to the public interest test.
Where the information requested by probate researchers is not published, many councils have claimed the exemption in section 31 arguing that disclosure would prejudice the prevention of crime. Some recent ICO appeal decisions lend support to this approach. In a decision involving Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council (FS50586033) the complainant requested, amongst other things, details of deceased people who had had public health funerals (including names, last known address, date of birth, date of death, date of funeral, and whether the case has been/will be/or even might be referred to the Treasury Solicitor).
The ICO agreed with the council that section 31 applied and it was not in the public interest to disclose the information. Release of personal details of a deceased individual with no known relatives, and no will, may make the assets of that person vulnerable. The assets of the deceased need to be secured and disclosure of the information may lead to the commission of offences (e.g. arson, identity theft etc.) and cause loss to the unsecured estates. In terms of the public interest the Commissioner states (paragraph 38):
“The Commissioner recognises that there is an inherently strong public interest in avoiding likely prejudice to the prevention of crime. The crime in this case would be likely to include a diverse range from anti-social behaviour, criminal damage, arson, organised groups stripping empty properties to identity fraud and the crimes that can be committed using false documents. The Commissioner accepts that tackling issues like these would involve significant public expense and believes it is in the public interest to protect property and to ensure that public resources are used efficiently. He also accepts that there is a strong public interest in avoiding personal distress to the direct victims of the crime and, in the case of crime related to empty properties, to those in the wider neighbourhood who may be affected.”
Similar decisions were made in complaints involving Birmingham City Council (FS50584670) and the London Borough of Bexley FS50583220. I have still not come across a First Tier Tribunal decision on such requests and so the exemptions, especially section 31, have yet to be comprehensively explored.
Some councils have argued that section 41 (Breach of Confidence) may apply to some of the information requested about the deceased. This can only be the case if the information has come from another party and is highly confidential. Section 41 is unlikely to apply to most requests from probate researchers. For a detailed discussion on access to information about the deceased under FOI, read my article and blog post.