What links the world’s longest-running TV soap and a professional membership body?
By Samantha White
Getting one of your key messages in front of an audience of 6 million people would be a dream come true for most organisations.
The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) is a global membership body, comprising lawyers, accountants, estate planners, and financial planners, all of whom help families make provision for their future. Alongside promoting public policy and professional standards within the industry, part of the Society’s remit includes educating the public about estate planning and inheritance issues. To have some of the nation’s favourite soap characters discussing these issues on prime-time television offers a golden opportunity to raise public awareness, particularly when the scriptwriters are keen to ensure the accuracy of what they are portraying on screen.
Just such an opportunity came Emily Deane’s way in 2018. As Technical Counsel at STEP, she was contacted by a Coronation Street researcher who was looking for an expert on probate, and had identified the Society as the go-to authority on the subject.
The relationship has developed from there and has become a particularly enjoyable part of Emily’s work. “I was very keen to get involved and it’s fun to see a sneak peek of the script that the actors will receive.”
The scenes are often played out on the nation’s television screens within just six weeks of Emily receiving a plotline summary or an extract from the script and providing answers to the writers’ questions about the feasibility or accuracy of events being portrayed.
The extent of Emily’s involvement varies from plot to plot. For example, when characters Fiz and Tyrone got engaged, they had a consultation with a solicitor to find out what legal arrangements they might need to consider. Emily provided advice about what a solicitor might say to a couple who were getting married and had children from previous relationships, to include home ownership, wills, guardianship and lasting powers of attorney.
On other occasions, the writers may ask more specific questions about the scenario. For a scene portraying the reading of Geoff Metcalfe’s will to his son, Tim, the writers were keen to confirm whether will readings are realistic and still took place, and whether the information provided in the scene was appropriate.
In April, viewers watched a storyline about Kelly Neelan inheriting her gangster father’s estate. Prior to filming, the scriptwriters wanted to confirm when Kelly would be able to access the estate proceeds, as she was under 18 at the time. Emily advised that the executor of the estate would likely sell the property and place the funds in trust for Kelly until she turned 18. The writers also wanted to iron out other legal details such as whether an inquiry would normally be held to establish whether any of the estate had been sourced through criminal means, which could lead to the estate assets being frozen.
Alongside wills and probate there have also been frequent plotlines in relation to lasting powers of attorney. This is something that most STEP members deal with in daily practice, so ties in neatly with one of the Society’s objectives. “We feel it's really important that the public know about lasting powers of attorney. They are incredibly useful and versatile legal tools that can have immense value if a family member loses capacity and can no longer deal with their own affairs. However, we are constantly warning our members and the public to look out for signs of potential abuse (whether abuse of trust or financial), amongst friends and family. The show has understandably and importantly aired some controversial plotlines in relation to abuse in this way so I felt quite strongly about being involved and raising awareness.”
The campaign for remote video witnessing
When not immersed in the goings on in Weatherfield, Emily can be found working to inform public policy. For example, at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, she was involved in discussions with the Ministry of Justice regarding the implementation of temporary legislation to allow individuals to use video conferencing to witness a will remotely.
“Normally, if you've instructed a professional to prepare your will, you would expect them to be a witness to it when you sign it, whether that happens in their office or in your home. During lockdown, a lot of our members, who are solicitors and will writers, were unable to go to their clients, and we wanted to ensure that people were still able to make a will safely that was legally valid."
For some, it may have been possible to enlist neighbours as witnesses and arrange a situation in which all parties were able to see each other while maintaining the requisite distance. “But we recognised that vulnerable people were becoming unable to make ‘deathbed wills’ urgently,” explains Emily.
The temporary two-year legislation meant that if somebody was unable to have two witnesses physically present when they signed their will, they could do so via their phone, computer or iPad. “That was really critical at the time, as it enabled people who were in hospital or nursing homes to make a will efficiently, safely and with the peace of mind that their wishes would be carried out.”
The facility has been extended until January 2024 as vulnerable people still need to shield or isolate, though STEP advises that the best practice remains being in the physical presence of the person signing the will when possible.
Emily’s next project aims to raise awareness about the need to protect and make provision for our digital memories, such as videos and photo albums stored in the cloud and in social media accounts.