Heir Hunters and FOIs

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Hi Nick, I think your comments in part sum up the image issues we have had over the years, luckily we are making enormous strides to be recognised for the good work we regularly do, and also for the vast amount of pro-bono work and the free events and conferences for the Public Sector we hold (which you have also attended).

We were called probate genealogists or probate researchers prior to the TV series 'Heir Hunters' which we then fell into line with to make things easier to understand. I prefer Probate Researchers or the US term Forensic Genealogists.

FYI, about me and why we (I speak only for my firm) don't think of ourselves as an 'outfit' which is clearly a negative term. I have been in the industry nearly 30 years and, with international colleagues formed the IAPPR, a regulatory body, a few years ago and this is gaining traction (www.iappr.org). I have featured in over 100 press, TV and radio interviews in recent years and am thought of as the industry spokesman in the UK. We have more legally qualifed staff and more voluntary regulation, codes of conduct and complaints procedures than many private "regulated" firms. I employ nearly 100 people in the UK & Ireland.

Without our work many estates could be (and have been) distributed wrongly, the Crown could inherit wrongly and entitled relatives may never be found. I think we deserve credit where its due.

I know that many such FOIs are sent by one heir hunting firm who have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince councils they should not use heir hunters seemingly to drum up business for themselves (quite how this might work defies logic). My firm has commissioned advice from a Barrister (copies avilable on request) which clearly shows they are offering flawed advice. Of course Councils can use free probate research services anytime they wish without any concerns.

Finders did not / does not send these FOIs, so you can cross us off your list!

Best wishes.

Hello Nick,

Going through your questions but with no option but to keep an eye on the previous post…

What’s in a name?

Here at Anglia Research, we prefer to call ourselves probate genealogists and underscore our commitment to professionalism by employing more accredited genealogists, legally qualified and independently regulated staff than any other UK probate research company.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that we should be referred to as “heir hunters” in the previous post (I think it can be safely inferred that the poster above is referring to Anglia Research).

Of course, we welcome independent regulation of tracing agents/probate researchers, and many of our people have independent regulation through recognised branches of the legal profession - the PPR, Cilex or SRA. However, if you check out the IAPPR, mentioned in the post above (company registration no 11052185), you’ll see that this organisation, which purports to be an industry regulator, is in fact a private company with a single director who also happens to be the sole director of the one UK-based heir hunting company that is a member of the IAPPR. There’s something circular about that logic.

FOIA research

We know that responding to FOI requests can be tedious for public bodies, but it is a valid method to garner evidence and vital for transparency.

Many forum readers will be aware of the work that Anglia Research has been conducting around councils’ use of heir hunters and the guidelines we have published to show how this can be achieved with probity, transparency and minimum risk.

When local authorities provide heir hunters with exclusive leads, they encourage excessive fees and risk compromising the quality of research. These cases are effectively shrouded in secrecy - which is where bad practice prefers to hide and why the FOIA requests are useful.

Consider the empty property case where, having been provided with an exclusive lead by a local authority, the tracing agent obtained a finder’s fee of around a quarter of the gross (not net) value of a £3.7 million estate. With VAT, this amounts to fees of over £1 million for a few hours of research. Moreover, the tracing agent has claimed this fee via a retrospective agreement with the personal representative, and not with each beneficiary. Of course, the affected beneficiaries are now pursuing legal remedies.

For councils, the unintended consequences of exclusive referrals are a PR disaster waiting to happen and are wholly avoidable.

Why should a council take that risk, when there is no benefit in doing so for the elected members, officers, or rate and council tax payers? That was the question that a leading public law QC posed when we consulted him, and one that we set out to answer from our FOIA research.  

Our research is based on extensive input from several barristers over a range of disciplines (public law, probate and competition law), and uses publicly available evidence to understand the reasons why some councils are actively choosing (or exercising their discretion) to enter into exclusive relationships with heir hunters.

Our reports have been largely welcomed as they address the confusion around the relentless marketing messages that have been so actively pushed upon the public sector. It is clear from FOIA responses that councils quite often wrongly believe that they are under a legal duty to trace relatives, and we have seen evidence that this is what they have been led to believe by heir hunters offering ‘legal advice’.

A legal duty is quite different from the legal power that the Finders barrister may be talking about; it is self-evidently the case that certain information can be given out by a council within the bounds of proper public law and policy considerations. However, our research addresses the unintended consequences of choosing to use that power to enter into exclusive relationships with heir hunters: eye-watering fees for relatives, disreputable practices and wrongly identified beneficiaries. Our research is not welcomed by those whose business interest in establishing relationships is entirely self-serving, cynically cloaked in the sheep’s clothing of benevolence.

Our research also shows how avoidable all this is. There is no need for exclusive heir hunter relationships. Every empty homes case and every intestacy case can easily be resolved without the need for a ‘bed fellow heir hunter’.

Highlighting policy and procedure, as published by the Government, and debunking false advertising, is a far cry from attempting to “drum up business”. Nor, as is alleged, do we try to convince councils that they should not use private companies. However, we do encourage councils to weigh benefits against risks; to assess, record and follow a transparent and rational procedure; and where a referral of an estate to the Government Legal Department is not possible, to advertise the details in an open forum, or send them simultaneously to more than one researcher.

This ensures that genealogical or tracing research is peer-checked and that any fee a relative pays is at a fair market rate - something that only competition can provide. Outcomes are quicker for councils as well.

Having taken a step back, many councils have now realised that the free service and free talks, lunches and merchandise are designed to secure one thing and one thing only: the exclusive referral of 'leads'.

Our work in this area is transparent and freely available to all (not just available upon request). To understand our motivation in challenging exclusive relationships between heir hunters and local authorities, please see this article. For a fuller discussion, please see our 2018 consultation document, and for access to all our articles and reports on the subject, please visit our fairness campaigns page.

Kind regards,

Anglia Research Services Ltd

Elsewhere on this website David Gibbens for EHN WRITES:

“Given Anglia's position as a commercial probate research company, it is natural to question the motivation behind the research and be sensitive to evidence that it is primarily a marketing tool or that the results or the original research questions have been skewed so as to place Anglia in a favourable position vis a vis its competitors”.

I feel that I should correct the previous post for the record. 

The IAPPR is a not for profit company and, after its formation, the APR (another voluntary regulatory body) was formed by another heir hunter. Under company number 10238122 one can see that 2 of the 4 officers of the APR work for Anglia Research, one for Fraser and Fraser and one for Treethorpe. The only members of the APR are the same 3 companies. 

The IAPPR has 11 international member companies with hundreds of staff under its umbrella. It is a not for profit organisation with an independent Company Secretary. We have had 3 international conferences to date and cumulative experience of over 1,000 years! See www.iappr.org

All voluntary regulators are to be welcomed in my view.

To clarify another incorrect point from the previous post: Finders has more independently regulated staff, more regulated paralegals and legally qualified (SRA regulated) consultants and referral firms than any other UK firm.

The case referred to by the previous post has nothing whatsoever to do with Finders.

The genealogical organisations AGRA and ASGRA etc have intrinsic historical ties to our competitors family and friends and to submit to membership one has to supply them with ones practices and reports so of course my company would not join. 

We do not offer free services to “obtain exclusive leads”. Another Quote “Our research is not welcomed by those whose business interest in establishing relationships is entirely self-serving, cynically cloaked in the sheep’s clothing of benevolence.” Wow! Somebody’s angry... Our benevolence is well known and evidenced on our website in many areas. We like to help and assist and make a positive difference wherever we can. We have a keen interest in education, the environment, equal rights, dementia and adult social care issues as well as funeral poverty and our business in general.

The original post was not commented on at all for a long time. My first comment above was then submitted and, within days, the extensive post above was lodged, with aggressive misinformation, which I consider to be somewhat disturbing. 

Smaller companies often make loud noises when they disagree with their bigger, more successful rivals. I would have thought it would make more sense to try to work together with local authorities, but not everyone agrees with our positive and constructive approach. 

....is apparently all the rage.

And I would hope that empty homes personnel in local authorities, who aspire to professional standards and are accountable to local communities,would welcome this. Who wants to proceed in ignorance?

Anglia's FOI requests about councils' use of heir hunters certainly constitute evidence which seems to me to warrant careful scrutiny. When writing the news article referred to by Finders, I found the indications of a lack of clarity and consistency amongst local authorities disturbing. I also found the arguments about the 'risks' of exclusivity compelling (though the full range of issues is actually pretty complex in my view).

It is always gratifying, if you are a bit vain about your writing skills as I am, to have your words quoted back at you as Finders are doing. I stand by my words, which say exactly what I wanted them to say - but they do of course have to be set in the context of the news story. I would paraphrase the main conclusion of that story as saying that Anglia's motivation was not of material significance from the practitioner point of view, whilst the evidence and the case being made, partly on the back of the evidence, were of significance.

Both the evidence presented by Anglia and the case being made by Anglia are open to challenge - indeed the news story effectively invited such a challenge.  So far, to the best of my knowledge, nobody is challenging the evidence, but Finders are clearly challenging the case that Anglia has made, largely it seems on the back of a barrister's opinion.

So it appears there is another piece of evidence that now needs to be brought into the equation. It deserves careful scrutiny. If the barrister doesn't want the full text of their opinion bruited about willy-nilly (they rarely do) then as a minimum, the key conclusions or arguments need to made available to EHN as a collective, so that our policy can be further developed and refined.

There haven't been many disputes about policy in EHN's lifetime: the last one I can recall was about whether or not we thought exemption class "C" for unfurnished empties should be abolished, where I recall being outvoted by the Members, who wanted to keep it. But the principle that policy, consultation responses and the like are open to debate by the members has been a permanent fixture of the Network.  I am confident that my successor as Policy Lead, Adam Cliff, will make sure the current debate, despite a rather haphazard start, will lead us to greater enlightenment.

On that subject , admirable though the personal qualities and contributions of Danny Curran and Finders may be, they cannot reasonably have a bearing on the difficult processes of evaluating evidence and formulating best practice, which is what practitioners need.

David Gibbens

Hi David,

With regard to the EHN Policy, the only one I can see online is in the Library dated 13/1/2015, and this doesn’t reference the use of Heir Hunters. Am I missing a more recent update? If there is no Policy on the use of Heir Hunters, are you planning on formulating one? If so, we would be happy to contribute.

The Barristers opinion is a complete document so rather than paraphrasing or extracting quotes from this or a variety of opinions into a “Finders” report, we decided to keep the Barristers Opinion as an independent whole document, available on request for each Officer to decide on and in order to see the simplicity of the conclusion (that Councils can of course use our free services without tender, and without any risk). 

There is extensive evidence from over 30 plus years of the risks, pitfalls and inconveniences of referring cases to the Treasury Solicitor so if it’s “evidenced based” decision making, nobody would ever send a case to the Treasury Solicitor again if they knew the crimes/problems it causes!

In my view there is no perfect answer, but at least referring cases to a trustworthy and reputable firm makes them accountable for their actions, so if they do anything that causes a problem they are identified easily and can make good that problem, and/or the Council can stop using them. By passing any information into the public domain there is always going to be an inherent risk, whether it’s via a Council website or the Treasury Solicitor publications. 

Dear Nick

In answer to your question - I do not think I have ever been asked if I have used an outside company to carry out research to find next of kin. I also do not tend to do so as I usually would approach the treasury solicitor if no next of kin can be found.

I do not use debtor tracing companies but I think that other departments in the Council do.

I hope that this helps.

Kind regards

Lauren Bellamy

Portsmouth City Council

Lauren Bellamy

Portsmouth City Council

All,

It’s good to see another example of an authority following correct procedure.

Concerning the surprising slur directed at the Association of Genealogists and researchers in Archives (AGRA), it’s a highly respected organisation created in 1968, with rigorous evidence-based standards for full membership. The evidence submitted on any membership application is peer-assessed by a panel to ensure these high standards are maintained. Only expert individuals are allowed to join, who are assessed on their abilities and knowledge, as AGRA does not allow corporate membership. Therefore, no confidential company reports of practices are ever requested by AGRA.

AGRA’s 2019 annual conference is at Pembroke College, Oxford:-

https://www.agra.org.uk/conference2019/

Last May it celebrated its 50th year at Inner Temple:-

https://www.agra.org.uk/news-celebrating-50th-birthday-in-style-2018-05-12

On a separate matter, and as we are gathering further evidence from FOIA requests, the counsel’s opinion sought by Finders on our report (stated to be available on request) sounds intriguing. In the interests of an open discussion about the subject for the benefit of local authorities and officers who work in this field, could Finders please post the instructions and a copy of any opinion here on the EHN site so that the various poor outcomes and risks to councils explained in our report can be compared with any criticism of its contents.  

https://www.angliaresearch.co.uk/media/uploads/local_authorities_and_heir_hunters_draft_report_2018.pdf

Could Finders or anyone who has already requested and received the opinion send us directly a copy of it and (to be a worthwhile exercise) the instructions so that the various counsel who have advised us can also give their view on anything that differs from their own advice. We can then amend our report if any aspect of our findings is “discredited” and will be happy to do so.  

Kind regards, 

Anglia Research Services Ltd

In order to fulfill their transparency claims, perhaps Anglia can send me a copy of their “expert” and “legal” reports used in their main discredited “dossier” (and their instructions used to obtain these) in the next few days. They seem to enjoy reading all my press and comments in all formats so will no doubt read this. I’m flattered to have such devoted fans.

We have decided to only allow copies of the barrister’s expert opinion to be copied in full and on request to Local Authorities. We do not permit the opinion to be copied or distributed. I think this statement is clear and made for obvious reasons.

(BTW Anglia’s “report” incorrrectly references Finders International and our website, but no apology has been received yet or a correction issued. I’m still waiting....)

Please spare Local Authorities these endless FOIs, they are a waste of public time and resources. 

To be clear, Local Authorities are completely in the right to use heir hunter(s) of their choice if and when they want to. There is no problem, legal or otherwise.

It is still not clear or in any way demonstrated how advice from James Neill “discredited” our in-depth consultation report (ref: Advice obtained by Finders International from Barrister James Neill of Landmark Chambers). Additionally, we suspect that the questions Mr Neill was asked to address were the wrong ones, and add nothing to the debate.

Whether local authorities have the power to provide tracing agents or heir hunters with details of local intestacies and whether it is lawful for them to use heir hunters’ services are not the questions at issue. The questions our reports seek to address are why and how local authorities use heir hunters’ services, and what the consequences are to the public.

It would have been helpful to Empty Homes Practitioners if James Neill had been asked questions of this nature, if the opinion was sought genuinely to assist councils and their officers: 

  • comment on the potential ethical and legal risks to local authorities of having no transparent policy before bypassing general government guidance and the factors taken into account by councils in so doing; 
  • comment on potential problems of the contractual relationship that is set up when tracing agents or heir hunters agree to provide a service (even a ‘free’ one) to the local authority in undertaking to identify and trace next of kin and other related services, and general EU legal obligations of transparency and equal treatment;
  • consider the impact that an exclusive referral to a single firm has on the level of fees that relatives are asked to pay; 
  • consider the impact that such a referral might have on the accuracy of the research conducted and what prejudice there may be to entitled next of kin.

In relation to this specific forum topic, please find below a note agreed by public law Leading Counsel of his initial advice from July 2015, following which the QC’s recommendation provided by him in a Consultation was to use the Freedom of Information Act to explore with local councils what practices, policies and risk assessment they had in place when providing information to agents who earn fees from the relatives of deceased people, and what the councils’ motivation and reasoning was.

Our research uncovered numerous legal misunderstandings and our second national review under the FOIA – nearing completion – now shows that many councils do understand that the free services being pressed on them are not free to relatives. Many authorities have now stopped using heir hunters/agents on an exclusive basis (some are now using or considering a simultaneous referral to a panel of three researchers or publishing their own list) and a significant majority would welcome further government guidance. 

We wholly stand by the conclusions of our reports, including any references and quotations within them. We have seen nothing written about James Neill's opinion that changes any aspect of the risks we have already highlighted.

  1. Advice is being obtained by Anglia Research Services Limited (‘Anglia’) […] concerning the role played by local authorities and other public bodies in relation to people who die with assets over £500, and with no evident will or next of kin (for this note, referred to as ‘Intestate Deceased’). Under these circumstances, local authorities and other public functionaries have duties and responsibilities in relation to the burial of the deceased person.  The assets of the deceased person vest in the Crown (or the Duchies of Lancaster or Cornwall) as bona vacantia unless next of kin are located and proved to be entitled to a share in the estate. The advice has been sought in response to Anglia’s concern about the lawfulness of practices operated by some authorities concerning ‘heir hunters’ or probate genealogists (generically referred to as ‘Researchers’ in this note). This note contains the preliminary advice of Leading Counsel. 
  2. Leading Counsel has advised that on the available information, there would be no lawful basis for a local authority to impose charges for the provision of information to Researchers concerning the deaths of Intestate Deceased, together with details of assets, and which would then confer an exclusivity of information that would be used to realise a financial benefit to the Researcher. Given that position, Leading Counsel finds it difficult to understand how or why a local authority would enter into an exclusive information exchange agreement with Researchers which confers no obvious benefit to the local authority.
  3. Leading Counsel also expresses a concern about how such Researchers might be selected for an exclusive arrangement in the absence of any transparency of process unless there is a fully worked up policy which justifies a Council’s approach.
  4. Leading Counsel therefore takes the view that it is both necessary and appropriate for any local authority which intends to deal directly with Researchers to develop a policy which covers the position as soon as practicable. Such a policy should include: protection, divulgence and publication of information about deaths of Intestate Deceased and of their assets (bearing in mind also the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000); process and timescale for referral of the detail of the Intestate Deceased to the Government Legal Department, Bona Vacantia Division (‘BVD’); and criteria for (a) the acceptance of kinship evidence from parties who may contact the local authority claiming to be next of kin and (b) the subsequent release of information about the estate assets.
  5. Leading Counsel also expressed a concern as to whether local authorities might be liable for facilitating a breach of trust (whether inadvertently or otherwise) by promoting or allowing a position to arise where monies are likely to be extracted from an estate of an Intestate Deceased under circumstances which could deprive other beneficiaries of their inheritance. Such liability may arise because:

(a) the usual arena for Researchers to earn their fees is via BVD’s openly           published details of the Intestate Deceased, where competitive market forces suppress the level of commission fees obtained from located next of kin. Exclusivity deprives consumers of this benefit; and

(b) exclusivity encourages the irregular practice of failing to locate all entitled relatives, where unscrupulous or inadequate Researchers may locate only the more straightforward next of kin, to the obvious detriment of any other next of kin.

        6. Therefore Leading Counsel’s concern was first that excessive commission                     fees could be facilitated by a local authority providing early exclusive              i               information to a Researcher and secondly that once an estate has been                         claimed and distributed, the legal remedies for overlooked beneficiaries                        (unless there is clear and available evidence of defraudment) are in practice                  extremely limited; the breach of a fiduciary duty by the local authority in failing                to ensure a widespread advertisement of an Intestate Deceased may provide a              cause of action.

Kind regards, 

Anglia Research.

Anglia Research Services Ltd

AR have their view, we have ours. I’m sure local authorities are quite capable of making their own decision.

I’d rather focus on positively helping EPOs and local authorities in any way we can.