Too Early to Say - Part 2

Yesterday we looked at some news from the Probate Registry about a mid-May drop in Probate applications and discussed whether the reasons for this were entirely COVID-19 related.

Today we look at the question of whether there is going to be a surge in Probate applications in the coming months and ask whether, if there is, that it is as a result of COVID-19.

Speaking for our department, we have seen a greater number of files relating to Probate applications or administration of estates opening during the last couple of months than we experienced in the same period in 2019. However, only a small number of these estates have resulted from deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate. So we do not feel that we can attribute the increase compared with 2019 to the pandemic. Indeed, we are not, at this stage, able to explain it at all.

Big data

Looking at our matter opening history, it is difficult to discern any patterns that give you a reliable basis for prediction at all. Moreover, we are one firm with offices in a few counties of the UK. I would not dare suggest our experience is a pattern that extrapolates to the whole nation.  

It is, however, possible to make some observations on ONS statistics relating to registration of deaths over the course of the last five years and, more immediately, the first 21 weeks of 2020:

  • The total number of deaths registered in the first 21 weeks of 2020 was 286,779.
  • The five year average for registrations of deaths for the same period is 235,293. This may have been what led to some headlines over the course of the last few weeks that talked about 50,000 more deaths in 2020 because of COVID-19. Of course, nobody can know yet how many of the extra deaths that have occurred this year compared with the five year average would have occurred in any event over the course of the year as a whole.
  • Also, bear in mind that the minimum numbers of deaths registered in each of the first 21 weeks of the last five years totalled 214,876. If you compare this year’s figures with that statistic, there would have been more (a great deal more) than 50,000 extra deaths. However, if you look at the maximum number of deaths recorded in each of the first 21 weeks over the course of the last five years, the total would have been 256,843. This indicates (if you are comparing that with the total number of deaths experienced this year in the first 21 weeks) an extra number of deaths significantly less than 50,000.
  • The data also indicates that there were 117,252 deaths registered in the first 10 weeks of 2020. In that period there were no deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate – after week 11 there is not a week where COVID-19 is not mentioned. This compares with a five year average for the first 10 weeks of a year of 121,960. The minimum number of deaths registered in the first 10 weeks over a five year period was 110,870 and the maximum was 132,705. 
  • In that same 10 week period there were 22,843 mentions of Influenza and Pneumonia on death certificates. It would be quite common to see a significant number of Influenza and Pneumonia mentions on death certificates in that period in any year. 

Cold snap

The one time where we are pretty sure we could see a correlation between an increased number of deaths over a fairly short period of time and a greater number of new estate matters was over the winter of 2017 / 18. If you remember, that was quite a sharp cold spell. The ONS statistics indicate that this led to a considerable national spike in deaths recorded in that period. However, when you get spikes in particular months (which may be weather related or not) historical data suggests that this does not necessarily have a considerable impact on the annual total of deaths registered. Instead, what often seems to happen is that deaths that would otherwise have occurred over the course of the year in any event are concentrated into a particular period.

Predictions?

Precisely what this implies for us all as we start to emerge from this situation, I think it is best not to make any predictions. Sorry to disappoint but I’m a lawyer, not a clairvoyant! I would prefer to follow the policy of the former Chinese leader we discussed in yesterday’s blog: strategic patience.

However, do not confuse that with complacency. We will continue to keep an eye on the national data and we will closely monitor what is happening with and listen to our clients. We will take the long view but will retain the capacity for flexibility and nimble adaptability where that is required.

We are resilient and determined and, most importantly, we are here. We are open for business - not necessarily as usual but in a new and slightly different way.

We have reconfigured the way that we work. We now want to consolidate our focus on support, service and delivery for our clients.