Tracing agent research indicates local authority confusion

A major report published by Anglia Research reveals a considerable amount of uncertainty, inconsistency and questionable practice amongst local authorities using probate researchers (or 'tracing agents'). For empty homes practitioners seeking to use tracing agents to locate missing owners, the report highlights some of the risks involved and the need for due diligence and robust procedures to control those risks. It warrants close reading.

The raw evidence on which the report is based consists of responses to a series of Freedom of Information requests sent to local authorities by solicitor Carolyn Lord, Commercial and Compliance Director at Anglia, . These were originally focused on the use of tracing agents in the context of public health funerals, but later rounds of requests also enquired about local authority use of tracing agents for empty homes

The research involved more than data collection, however: it also drew on the opinions of barristers into the appropriateness, legality, etc of various positions and practices adopted by local authorities.

Exclusivity vs competition

The key issue explored is whether or not the procedures adopted by local authorities ensure competition amongst tracing agents who have been employed to locate relatives in circumstances where authorities have 'public funeral' duties to consider, and, if not, what the consequences might be of granting 'exclusivity' to a single provider. 

The context here is that probate researchers aim to locate entitled beneficiaries and (typically) to sign them up to fee agreements whereby the beneficiary's claim on the estate will be progressed in return for a percentage of the beneficiary's entitlement. The report makes a strong case that, in the absence of competition, tracing agents can charge higher fees to entitled beneficiaries than they would if they knew that the beneficiaries were being approached by other tracing agents: depending on the firm, the differential might be very considerable. Thinking of an estate consisting of a single house in London, it is easy to see how the difference between 10% and 20% could run into tens of thousands of pounds.

The other main issue with 'exclusivity' is that it can prevent the genealogical work conducted by the contracted firm being properly checked by other firms. A number of cases are cited where firms lacking the requisite genealogical expertise have identified the wrong beneficiaries, leaving loss and chaos in their wake; moreover, the report indicates how an unscrupulous firm might deliberately falsify results or choose not to pursue certain avenues.

LA responses

It is clear from the FOI responses that these issues have hardly risen to the surface amongst local authorities. In fact the potential commercial value of information about people who have died intestate without known relatives seems not to have been adequately reflected in procedures and policies based on some responses, a few of which seem to reveal a jaw-dropping insouciance about the potential consequences. 

The exact degree of responsibility of local authorities towards estates and their beneficiaries - with whom the authority has no direct relationship - is one of the more difficult issues to resolve and it cannot be said that the report has provided a definitive answer. But seems likely that the typical person-in-the-street would expect some kind of consideration to be given by a public authority to the interests of the beneficiaries. A deliberate strategy of ignoring those interests looks risky from several points of view, not least of which is the reputation of the local authority.

Whilst this issue may remain unresolved, there can be no doubt about the huge inconsistencies in the views of different local authorities as revealed by the FOI responses.

Status of the research

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. According to reports received, staff in at least one local authority have already pooh-poohed the research solely on the grounds that Anglia is an active player in the market .But such a response really boils down to the attitude 'don't make me think'. 

Certainly Anglia might hope to gain from any outcome whereby all relevant leads should be placed in the public domain (whether via the government-appointed 'bona vacantia' agencies or via a similar public register maintained by a local authority) or by passing leads to a panel of approved providers.  But such a hope would seem to rest on Anglia's confidence in meeting any reasonable due diligence requirements and in its ability to achieve successful outcomes in a competitive environment, rather than in circumventing or preventing competition. It is hard to see the downside for public authorities and beneficiaries in such arrangements.

Assessing the conduct, focus or conclusions of the research will no doubt involve a judgment call. In fairness, this should pay at least some regard to the role of Carolyn Lord as the instigator of the project. Before any involvement with Anglia or exposure to the probate research industry, Lord had worked in and for public sector bodies, and specifically in the area of standards. This seems to have provided a strong personal motivation for what has clearly been an epic investigation, one which in its engagement with the issues seems to have gone beyond the kind of self-serving 'research' that commercial organisations can often be found peddling.

From a neutral perspective (and bearing in mind that the Empty Homes Network is currently not accepting any sponsorship from probate researchers, as we have previously done), the report presents a wealth of evidence and forceful arguments in support of its conclusions.  The onus now rests on those with contrary views to justify their position.

It is understood that the report has been circulated as a Draft Report to heads of relevant services at all top tier authorities and districts. It doesn't seem yet to have reached the press or provoked much in the way of public response.

At least one of Anglia's competitors - Finders - is understood to have written to local authorities claiming that the report is flawed, characterising it as 'fervently attacking councils and their procedures'; other competitors may have done the same. But no specific counter-arguments have as yet come to EHN's notice. At this point, it is not clear how or where any debate will be played out.

You can find the report, entitled Local Authorities and Heir Hunters: Myths, Misunderstandings and Unintended Consequences via our Information Library here.

 

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Comments

I think it would be really helpful if Anglia could also include an appendix detailing exactly how EPOs can refer a property to Bona Vacantia.

Point taken about competition and accountability and the potential effects upon price and quality.

However, we find with a number of our more difficult empty properties that owners are reportedly alive but we are not able to find them with the resources/access to systems that we have. Views about what to consider when looking at drawing up an SLA with a single tracing agent, for non-deceased estates, would be welcome.

Sue Li

Compulsory Purchase and Enforcement Officer

Derby City Council

For empty homes/property, it’s certainly the case that practical considerations are different to those faced by officers who are expressly dealing with Public Health Act funerals and deceased people’s affairs. We recognise that officers who deal with empty properties will often not be in a position to refer cases directly to the Bona Vacantia Division (BVD).

Appendix 2 to the draft report deals expressly with Empty Homes Work and sets out a simple method to cover the problem Sue Li outlined:

“A practical model for establishing and managing a panel of three genealogical research firms that will support the local authority’s goals while protecting next of kin from being overcharged or overlooked in cases that involve intestacy.”

The ‘panel of three’ model will involve little officer time, inject competition and ensure some accountability and transparency. Three duly selected agents are told of every case so that all can work on it, but each in turn is also directed to deal with a case in full, regardless of whether it involves an intestacy. Any agent who does not fulfil their role in working on the directed non-fee-paying cases (eg where the owner’s location is well hidden, but s/he is alive) would simply be dropped from the panel.

Full details are in Appendix 2. We’d be very interested in any practical feedback as to why this model couldn’t work to the advantage of authorities as well as any next of kin on an intestacy.

This report has been discredited by a Barristers opinion, available from Finders on request. As the article tellingly notes "Anglia might hope to gain from any outcome" although quite why an heir hunter wants to damamge their own profession is frankly bizarre. Of course Local Authorities can use the free next of kin tracing services of our company, there was never any doubt over this.

As a solicitor whose legal and wider career from the 1980s has centred around local government and protection of local authority probity, I take great exception to Anglia Research’s respected and valued report (which I coordinated) being described by an heir hunter on this forum as ‘discredited’. How can a single counsel’s opinion (undisclosed and with no instructions revealed) “discredit” extensive, evidence-based research which covers a range of risk and probity scenarios? Particularly given that this work has been guided for over four years by several eminent practitioners across the range of relevant legal specialisms.

Councils and officers have reputations to defend and the points we make are not lost on them. 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.

Thanks

As the article states: “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”

Empty Homes and PHA funerals both place and increasing burden on Local Authorities and Finders International provide free to use solutions which deal with low value and no value problems on an equal footing to other cases. Our pro-bono work and free events for the public sector are testament to our intention to be positive and provide valuable assistance and support.

We are looking to help and assist Local Authorities rather than criticise them (and adopt illogical scaremongering tactics as a marketing tool). Hopefully councils will also one day be spared the endless FOI requests that this “report” has generated, which also wastes their time and resources further. Our industry should work together to help councils.

I am considered to be the foremost probate research industry spokesman and have completed over 100 interviews on TV, Radio and for the press and I have been featured by Forbes Magazine as an entrepreneur of note in my field of expertise. My company won 5 trophies at the UK Probate Research Awards, including “Best UK Probate Research Company” and “Best Community Contribution”.

Sergio Leone’s "Once Upon a Time in the West" is my favourite Spaghetti Western. Stunning choreography, brilliant use of good guy Henry Fonda as a bad guy, shifting loyalties as each character develops. Just watch the eyes of Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale. Stunning. And to think that Leone didn’t really want to make this film at that time. 

Before OUTW, Leone churned out the Dollars Trilogy. Set against OUTW, they feel like Leone was just getting his eye in. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” sees three bounty hunters pursuing a dead man’s haul of gold. It’s OK, but not a patch on, "For a Few Dollars More". FFDM has the best score for a start. Morricone’s “Addio Colonnello’ is a gem. The characters are deeper and more complex. The plot? Two bounty hunters team up to hunt down a violent killer. The relationship of mutual dependence and mutual distrust between the bounty hunters Manco (Eastwood) and Colonel Mortimer (Lee van Cleef ... great eyes!) form the spine of the adventure. A line that captures their predicament well is the avuncular Mortimer warns Manco, "When two hunters go after the same prey, they usually end up shooting each other in the back. And we don't want to shoot each other in the back".

I'm not looking to hire a bounty hunter, but I might need an heir hunter, or three. Trouble is I don’t know how to go about finding the best in the field. What should I be looking for?

Nick P-G
Reading BC
01189373091

Manhattan was a cinematic Tour de Force, the soaring skyscrapers of New York City and haunting refrains from Gershwin contrasting the hopeless romantic aspirations of a man who could never be truly happy. The stark reality of the black and white footage sought to encompass the beauty of life, whilst Allen showed us how tough life can be.

Woody went on to make further classics. Co-starring Michael Caine, Hannah & Her Sisters told the story of a man who, whilst married to one sister fell in love with another. Choices were made by husbands and wives, partners and family and at the end of the day nobody could conclude that any one of the three sisters could be considered a better person than the others. 

If I was choosing one of three, I would meet all three and make up my mind from there. Unless you are after a Woody Allen fan, when the choice is clear...

OK – I’ll bite…

Fans of Eddie Marsan (and who isn’t?) will have enjoyed his turn as John May in Uberto ‘The Full Monty’ Pasolini’s “Still Life”, which won a hatful of awards on release and for which Marsan picked up Best Actor at the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival. John is a Local Authority officer whose main responsibility is locating the next of kin of people found dead in his district. His line manager finds his obsessive attention to detail time consuming and expensive and John’s position is to be made redundant. John carries on for his last few months at work, operating on his own account, a bit like a private-sector research organisation / heir hunter / what-you-will.

Scored by Rachel Portman (Mrs Uberto Pasolini) whose work can be heard on Chocolat, The Cider House Rules and films by Jonathan Demme, Mike Leigh and Robert Redford to name a few and shot in the UK, it’s not so much a spaghetti western (though pork pies and fish and chips are featured…) or a beautifully photographed metropolitan drama, as a sweet, elegiac film dealing with loneliness and fractured families, and the journey John May takes that enables him to start living his life fully. SPOILER ALERT at that point, he gets run over by a bus. Despite the awards, reviews were mixed…

Daniel’s got a point - why not consider meeting with different service providers? Perhaps part of the answer could be about chemistry. To answer your question directly, I’d be looking for something beyond the usual: of course I’d expect whoever I worked with to have the tools, international reach and expertise to get the job done – these ought to be “givens” – and look for someone I could rely on to help me out whenever I needed it: an organisation for whom helpfulness, service and service-user satisfaction come first and someone I could call on to simply pick their brains as and when and who, if they couldn’t help directly, would refer me to someone who could; someone who would make a positive contribution to the sector and the Network, someone strongly committed to Bringing Empty Homes Back Into Use.