The High Court has ordered that Prince Philip’s will is to be kept secret for 90 years. This is a departure from the general rule that wills are open to inspection by the public after being admitted to probate.
However, Prince Philip’s will was judged to fall within the sole exception that a will may be kept private if the court agrees that it would be “undesirable or otherwise inappropriate” to publish it. Judith Swinhoe-Standen and Geoff Kertesz explore the history behind this decision.
A long tradition
Royal wills have a long history of privacy, dating back to 1822 when the court ruled in respect of King George III’s will that the sovereign’s will does not need a grant of probate. The effect of this is that it is not made public in the usual way.
In 1910, the court considered the position of members of the wider royal family, ruling that the will of Prince Francis of Teck, a brother of Queen Mary (consort of King George V), be ‘sealed’ and its contents kept private from the general public. Since then, this practice has become the norm for senior members of the royal family, and more than 30 wills have been similarly sealed.
The practice has been tested on occasion. In 2007, an individual applied to the court claiming to be an illegitimate son of Princess Margaret and asserting that he therefore had an interest in the princess’s and the Queen Mother’s wills being unsealed. He lost, but the court took the opportunity to make clear there is a difference between the rights of the general public to inspect a will and those of an individual asserting a genuine private interest in the will.
In 2017, the Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s Archives applied to have sight of King Edward VIII’s will in order to establish the owner of certain literary works created by the king. The judge granted the application so that the librarian could both solve his copyright question and fill a gap in his archives. The judge itemised a precise process for transmission of copies of the documents to the librarian and emphasised that only the librarian, not the general public, was permitted sight of them.
Less successfully, an individual purporting to be the illegitimate daughter of Princess Margaret made a series of hopeless applications to unseal her will in 2017. Alas, the applicant’s evidence was thoroughly inconsistent, and her applications were roundly rejected. For good measure, the judge described the claims as “a farrago of delusional nonsense”.
How is Prince Philip’s case different?
The treatment of Prince Philip’s will therefore follows a long tradition of privacy. Inevitably, if made public, the will would attract considerable (probably undesired) interest. In any event, Prince Philip was likely to have executed it on the understanding that its contents would remain private. The judge opined that the unique status of the Queen and her close family makes it appropriate to have a special practice in relation to royal wills due to there being a public interest in protecting their private affairs.
The only departure from previous rulings on royal wills was to impose a time limit on the privacy of Prince Philip’s will in contrast to the indefinite sealing of previous royal wills. After 90 years, specific officials may inspect his will, who may then invite the court to rule on whether the will should be made public or re-sealed for a further period.
In November 2021 , The Guardian launched a legal challenge to the Court’s decision to ‘seal’ the will. The media outlet claims that the decision is at odds with principles of open justice. Judith Swinhoe-Standen and Geoff Kertesz spoke to CNN about this.
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